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Group challenges ballot language for transportation sales tax increase

Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Beacon | 2013

This article originally appeared in the St. Louis Beacon. - The Missouri Association for Social Welfare is challenging the ballot summary language for a proposal to increase the state’s sales tax for transportation projects.

The group announced Monday  that it had filed a lawsuit in Cole County Circuit Court challenging Secretary of State Jason Kander’s ballot summary for a constitutional amendment instituting a 10-year, 1-cent sales tax increase for transportation.

The constitutional amendment is similar to a legislative initiative debated earlier this year. Proceeds from the tax increase would go primarily toward state transportation projects. Roughly 10 percent of the tax’s revenue would go to counties and cities for local transportation efforts.

The suit contends that the ballot language approved earlier this month “is insufficient and unfair” because it “inadequately, unfairly, and prejudicially describes the purposes and legal impact of the ballot measure.”

When Kander approved the amendment for circulation in mid-November, his office composed a ballot summary asking whether Missouri’s Constitution should be amended to:

  • increase funding for state, county and municipal street, road, bridge, highway, and public transportation initiatives by increasing state sales/use tax by 1 percent;
  • prohibit a change in gasoline taxes and prohibit toll roads or bridges; and
  • require these measures to be approved by voters every 10 years?

The lawsuit, filed by Jefferson City attorney Gaylin Carver, asks the court to rewrite the amendment’s ballot summary language. (Click here to read the lawsuit.)

Among other things, the suit contends that the ballot summary should have described the sales tax increase more precisely -- from 4.225 percent to 5.225 percent. That, the lawsuit says, is “a 23.67 percent increase, not a 1 percent increase as stated in the summary statement.”

The suit also says that the line “prohibit toll roads or bridges” doesn’t correspond with the amendment’s ballot language. It zeroed in on a line stating that the state's transportation commission couldn’t own, operate or authorize a toll road or bridge “in existence on Jan. 1, 2014.”  

If that language is passed, the lawsuit continues, it would be possible “to authorize toll roads and bridges so long as they are constructed after Jan. 1, 2014.” 

“MASW fights for basic human needs and basic fairness for all Missourians, and this ballot measure fails in regard to both,” said MASW executive director Jeanette Mott Oxford, a plaintiff in the lawsuit. “Our lawsuit attempts to shine a light on inadequacies of the ballot language that could mislead the public."

“Our state has many needs and essential programs that are gravely underfunded, including transportation. A sales tax is among the worst ways to fund these measures, however,” she added.

In a statement, Kander's spokeswoman Laura Swinford said the secretary of state's office "is a nonpartisan representative for Missourians in the initiative petition process."

"We write impartial and accurate ballot summary language for every petition, and we are confident that the court will uphold our language as fair and sufficient," she said.

When it went through the General Assembly earlier this year, the 1-cent sales tax increase had support from Republicans and Democrats as well as key business, labor and agriculture organizations.

Supporters of the legislative measure – sponsored by state Sens. Mike Kehoe, R-Jefferson City, and Ryan McKenna, D-Jefferson County – said that the measure would provide an economic stimulus for the state and provide much-needed infrastructure improvements.

But the measure also sparked bipartisan opposition. Some GOP lawmakers – including state Sens. John Lamping, R-Ladue, and Rob Schaaf, R-St. Joseph – led a successful filibuster in the last days of session.Some Democrats also opposed the measure because a sales tax increase disproportionately affects poor and elderly Missourians.

To get on next year’s ballot, organizers must gather signatures from registered voters equal to 8 percent of the total votes cast in the 2012 governor's election from six of the state's eight congressional districts.

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