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Sinquefield-aligned group to press for mandate that local voters decide fate of earnings tax

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 20, 2010 - A new campaign committee, Let Voters Decide, was filed today with the Missouri Ethics Commission as the next step in the effort to get a measure on this year's statewide ballot that deals with urban earnings taxes in St. Louis and Kansas City.

However, the proposal to be advanced would not automatically do away with the tax -- as some of the alternatives had proposed, and as St. Louis officials had feared.

Lawyer Marc Ellinger, the group's spokesman, said in a statement: "The statutory initiative measure we will pursue does not automatically repeal the existing earnings taxes in St. Louis and Kansas City.

"It's designed to give voters in those cities the right to decide for themselves, in local elections, whether they want to continue the earnings tax in their city or phase it out gradually over a period of 10 years. The initiative also prohibits any new local earnings taxes in communities that don't currently have one, so it protects people in the rest of the state from having a local earnings tax imposed in their city or town."

Ellinger added that the initiative proposal also would require "local 'sunset' votes on the existing 1 percent earnings tax in each city every five years starting in 2011. The tax would continue as long as the majority of voters continue to approve it in those local votes. If, in a future local election, the majority of local voters in St. Louis or Kansas City vote against continuing the earnings tax, it would be phased out in their city gradually, over a period of 10 years, at the rate of one-tenth of a percent per year."

As far as St. Louis officials were concerned, the proposal was the least threatening of the various earnings-tax ballot measures submitted to the secretary of state's office for review and possible circulation. Ellinger made clear that the others -- some of which would have repealed the tax outright -- are dead.

He also confirmed that the primary financing for the initiative-petition effort, at least for now, comes from wealthy financier/philanthropist Rex Sinquefield, who resides in St. Louis and mid-Missouri. Sinquefield already has donated $500,000 to the effort.

The new group's chairman will be Travis H. Brown, who heads up the Pelopidas L.L.C., a consulting firm that represents Sinquefield.

Let Voters Decide plans to soon start gathering the roughly 100,000 voter signatures needed to place the initiative on the November 2010 statewide ballot.

St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay has indicated that City Hall could probably live with a citywide vote on the tax, because officials are confident that St. Louis residents would OK the tax as an alternative to substitute taxes, such as land taxes.

However, it's unclear if the ballot measure also would require regular votes in St. Louis County, where the tax also is levied on residents who work in the city. Their approval may not be as secure.

Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.