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Missouri Senate approves Arch sales tax proposal

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 30, 2012 - The Missouri Senate approved legislation laying the groundwork for a vote on a sales tax increase to fund, among other things, improvements around the St. Louis Arch.

The bill would permit the St. Louis Board of Aldermen and the county councils in St. Louis County and St. Charles County to put a 3/16th of 1 percent sales tax increase on the ballot.  About 60 percent of the proceeds would go to the Great Rivers Greenway, while 40 percent would go to local parks.

Funds to Great Rivers Greenway would be used for “enhancements” on the Arch grounds and developing trails throughout the region. To go into effect, at least two of the three voting jurisdictions would have to approve the proposal.

The legislation – handled in the Missouri Senate by state Sen. John Lamping, R-Ladue – passed by a 20-8 vote Monday. Since changes were made, it will need to go back to the House for another vote. If it makes it through the legislative process, the bill will go to Gov. Jay Nixon for his approval or veto.

Boosters of the proposal say the tax increase could go a long way toward improving the aesthetics around an iconic landmark in the St. Louis metro area. St. Louis County officials are also bullish about an additional source of revenue to fund its parks system, which was at the center of an intense budget fight last year.

But critics, including St. Charles County Executive Steve Ehlmann, have questioned the wisdom of using local sales taxes to pay for improvements on federal land. It was an argument echoed by state Sen. Jason Crowell, a Cape Giradeau Republican who ended up voting against the bill.

Crowell noted that the increased sales tax would have a negative impact on tourists visiting the St. Louis metro area. In addition, Crowell said, using local sales taxes to fund a federal project would set a bad precedent.

“I’m trying to understand what’s next,” Crowell replied. “If one of us really liked our post office, are we supposed to authorize a local tax for a post office or mail processing center? If we want a new federal courthouse, should we authorize a local sales tax for a local courthouse?”

In addition to Crowell and several outstate legislators, area Sens. Jane Cunningham, R-Chesterfield, Jim Lembke, R-Lemay, and Brian Nieves, R-Washington, voted against the bill.

Lamping noted that the project has support among philanthropic organizations within the St. Louis area. He said the proposal was a way for the local community to take control of the destiny of a major landmark.

“I actually think there’s a way to consider this in terms of state pride,” Lamping said. “We’re not waiting for the federal government to fix this problem. We’re not asking the federal government to go greater into debt. I think a case could be made that maybe in some ways … that federal park should become a state park. Maybe in the course of this debate and discussion and dialogue, the same community leaders would say, ‘Look, here’s what we need to do take over complete control of this federal park.’"

Lamping said he saw a "new reality" in which "we’re going to see more and more local communities and states that say, ‘Look, we’re not going to wait to rebuild federal highways anymore with federal dollars anymore.’”It’s crumbling, it’s not working. And we’re not going to wait around and we’re going to take this challenge up ourselves.”

Senators added numerous amendments to the legislation during the committee process and during Monday’s debate. Notable additions from the House version included the ability for Jackson County to set up a similar apparatus to the Great Rivers Greenway, as well as the authorization for a transient guest tax for the city of Pevely in Jefferson County.

Start of update: In a telephone interview on Tuesday morning, Lamping said that none of the additions to the bill should forestall its passage before the end of session.

“We didn’t have a ‘local government bill’ last year go through the General Assembly, but my understanding from more experienced legislators is that it’s a very common phenomenon that there would be a bill that included a lot of enabling type of legislation,” Lamping said. “We might see it again, but I think it’ll ultimately end up on the governor’s desk.”

While disagreeing with Crowell, Lamping said he appreciated the lengthy discussion and debate. He noted that the exchange was lengthier that what usually occurs in the Missouri Senate.

“We rarely debate things when we disagree; we typically spend a small amount of time discussing our disagreements and then we move onto killing things,” Lamping said. “The reason he was willing to take so much time to discuss that kind of argument was to see if there was anybody else in the room that had a different argument or a better argument or could add to the thoughts.”

Lamping concluded, “At the end of the day, I’m a huge believer in government being as local as possible. People will pay for things that they can hold accountable, they’ll pay for things that they can see and touch. … The worst way to do government is to send money to a centralized location and then go to that location and lobby for some money back. That’s our federal model and to some degree that’s our state model.” End of update

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.