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Opponents of city earnings taxes first of ballot measures to turn in signatures

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 27, 2010 - Wealthy financier Rex Sinquefield's effort to revamp and restrict local earnings taxesgot a boost today when his allied group turned in twice as many signatures needed to get the proposal on this November's ballot.

Today's submission of 210,000 signatures by the campaign group, Let Voters Decide, also is the first of what could be a flurry of signature submissions by various groups up until the deadline of 5 p.m. Sunday.

A spokesman for the secretary of state's office says that 23 initiative petitions have been cleared for circulation over the past year, although it's unclear how many have resulted in serious -- and often, expensive -- signature-collection drives. And some, like the earnings-tax effort, had produced several initiative petitions, although only one ended up being circulated.

Among the best-known ballot proposals is one to overhaul Missouri's judicial-selection system and require the election of all judges in the state, even those on the state Supreme Court.

The earnings-tax measure submitted today needed only 92,000-100,000 signatures from registered voters to get on the November ballot. The number of required signatures depends on which six of the state's nine congressional districts are used; a formula mandates that the petition be accompanied by a minimum of signatures representing 5 percent of each district's vote for governor in 2008.

A spokesman for Let Voters Decide said it collected signatures in seven congressional districts, one more than required.

The ballot proposal would require votes every five years in St. Louis and Kansas City, which now impose earnings taxes, beginning in 2011. If the earnings tax is ever turned down, it can't be reimposed.

Other communities in Missouri would be barred from enacting earnings taxes.

Sinquefield, who spent $1 million on the campaign, opposes earnings taxes and believes that they hurt economic development in the cities with them. He advocates other types of taxes, such as a land tax. Sinquefield also opposes a state income tax for the same reason and prefers taxes on consumption instead, such as sales taxes.

Marc Ellinger, spokesman for the Let Voters Decide committee, said in a statement, "We'd like to thank Missouri voters for their strong show of support. Big corporate and union interests who want to prevent voters from having any say on local earnings taxes spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a paid harassment effort to try to block voters from signing our petitions. But voters clearly showed that they want the right to vote on those taxes."

Opponents see the situation differently. Tony Kelley, president of the Missouri State Council of Firefighters, said in a statement: "Missourians should be alarmed that a billionaire who only recently moved to our state has gathered enough signatures to put on the ballot an initiative that will force massive cuts in police and fire protection and increases in sales and property taxes. Billionaire Rex Sinquefeld may have bought himself a tax cut, but the rest of us will be stuck with the tab in the form of higher taxes and fewer services."

The firefighters council is a member of United for Missouri’s Priorities, a group set up in opposition to Sinquefield's group.

Courts Decline to Intervene in Battle over Judges

Meanwhile, the battle continues over Missouri's current judicial-selection system, which backers say is nonpartisan and opponents contend is anything but. Under the current setup, a selection committee made up of gubernatorial appointees and members of the Missouri Bar assembles a panel of three acceptable nominees. The governor chooses one.

That system is used for judges in the state's urban and largest suburban counties and for those who sit on the state's higher courts.

Show Me Better Courts -- a group headed by James Harris, a former aide to former Gov. Matt Blunt -- seeks to replace that system with one in which all Missouri judges are elected. That's currently the system in rural Missouri counties.

The group suffered a setback last Friday when a judge rejected its request for a restraining order against a rival group, Missourians for Fair and Impartial Courts, which has shadowed Show Me's signature-collectors. Show Me contends the rival group's activists have intimidated potential petition signers; Fair and Impartial Courts denies any improper acts and says its volunteers have simply sought to communicate facts.

Said Harris in a statement after the judge's ruling: “Our effort to reinstate democracy and accountability in Missouri’s judiciary will continue, and on May 2 we will submit our signatures to the secretary of state.”

Ken Morley, an advisor to the Fair and Impartial Courts group, replied:

"With only a few short days left to go before the signature deadline, it is more important than ever that Missourians say yes to nonpartisan judges and say no to this risky scheme to politicize our courts by refusing to sign petitions circulated by Show Me Better Courts.” 

Changing the state's judicial-selection system requires a change in Missouri's constitution, which means more signatures are needed to get such a proposal on the ballot: 147,000-160,000, depending on the congressional districts chosen for signature collection.

By Sunday, it will be clear which ballot proposals have a chance to get on the ballot and which ones don't. Submitting signatures is only the first step. The secretary of state's staff will spend weeks combing through the signatures to verify they come from current registered voters -- and which don't and must be tossed out.

That explains why petition groups prefer to turn in far more signatures than they really need.

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.