Slay's dialing for dollars brings in support for earnings tax campaign
Mayor Francis Slay hopes that a big "no" vote in St. Louis in November against the ballot proposition on the city's earnings tax will turn into a big "yes" vote for the earnings tax in April.
And he's got more than $325,000 in donations so far to help make his case.
The mayor's strong effort to keep the earnings tax is a marked contrast to his decision last year to sit out the statewide campaign for Proposition A, whose passage led to the required vote on April 5. Though the proposition passed across the state with more than 68 percent of the vote, Slay immediately noted that it had lost big in the city, with a 68 percent negative vote. He said that total showed that city voters already realized what a severe blow the loss of the earnings tax would be to an already tight budget, and he wanted to make sure that such momentum was not lost. (Read the Beacon's earlier coverage of the election.)"This is something we cannot take for granted," Slay (right) said in an interview Monday. "We need to understand that right now. This is the only thing on the ballot in April, other than maybe some lightly contested aldermanic races. So we really need to motivate people to come to the polls to help keep in place a tax they are already paying. We don't want people to sit on their hands. This is not Proposition A. This is what Proposition A caused.
"But I have faith in the people of St. Louis, if they are armed with the facts, so we need to make sure we give them sufficient information about what is at risk."
The 1 percent earnings tax, paid by people who live or work in the city, brings in $141 million a year -- about one-third of the city's annual revenue. Slay and other officials have said that city services would suffer a catastrophic blow if that money were lost over a 10-year period, phased out at a rate of 0.1 percent a year.
"If they vote no," Slay said, "people need to know that we will cut fire houses and police officers. That would gut the city. We couldn't function properly as a city without that revenue. I think people are going to vote yes because they are concerned about what might replace it."
Slay said that he began dialing for campaign dollars right after Proposition A won statewide, and so far the results have been fruitful. Reports made to the Missouri Ethics Commission as of Monday showed more than $325,000 in donations of $5,000 or more, with $25,000 gifts coming from some of the most recognizable corporate names in the St. Louis area: Emerson, Peabody, Ameren, Nestle Purina and Stifel Nicolaus among them. Donations of $20,000 each have come from Centene and the iron Workers Political Education Fund in Washington, and the Cardinals, the Downtown Partnership and the Regional Chamber and Growth Association have kicked in $15,000 each.
Backers of the effort to keep the earnings tax have also started a website for the group Citizens for a Stronger St. Louis. Slay says all of the money and a concerted campaign, including the use of social media, will be needed because he isn't sure at this point what opposition forces may pop up between now and April.
"The St. Louis business and civic communities have really stepped up in a big way," Slay said. "Ironically, a lot of those donors are city businesses whose employes are paying that earnings tax. So they realize the need to keep it until there is a viable and acceptable plan to replace it."
Given the short time between November and April, Slay said, there was no time to develop such a plan. Once the election is over, he added, there will be plenty of time to focus on that aspect of the issue.
"I'm open to ideas on how to make St. Louis more job-friendly," he said, "and I am committed to making sure that we continue to explore various ways to do that, which includes possibly replacing the earnings tax. But we have to keep in mind that the city cannot function without that revenue. It would severely limit our ability to provide public safety and other services that citizens enjoy and expect.
"I think most people believe we can do a better job. Maybe the earnings tax isn't the best way to tax our citizens. If not, what is going to replace it? That's not going to be up to me to decide that. It's going to be the Board of Aldermen and the Legislature, but mostly it's going to be the people of St. Louis. For seniors, if you start raising sales taxes and property taxes, they're going to have to pay those. They're not paying the earnings tax."
Slay noted that the ultimate answer is likely to be more cooperation between the city and St. Louis County, either through a formal joining of governments or simply more sharing of services.
"What we need to do as a region is not just look at this in isolation," he said. "There are a lot of redundancies and inefficiencies out there."
The mayor explained his decision to sit out the vote in November by saying that the way Proposition A was written, it was going to pass easily because it barred other cities from enacting an earnings tax if they did not already have one, and it seemed to give voters control over the future of the 1 percent levy. He also noted that the wording of the ballot measure was confusing -- if St. Louis voters wanted to prevent loss of the tax, they would have to vote "no" in November, but if they feel the same way in April, they have to vote "yes." He said a big-time campaign that in effect would ask voters to switch they way they cast their ballots, even if they felt the same way about the earnings tax, would lead to unnecessary confusion.
At this point, no organized opposition to the retention of the earnings tax has surfaced. Speculation that Sinquefield would follow up his big-money campaign to pass Proposition A with a similar effort to end the earnings tax in St. Louis and Kansas City thus far has not led to any action; a spokeswoman for Sinquefield said Wednesday that he did not have any plans at this time to become involved in the election. And Slay said though he has talked to Sinquefield about the issue, he is not sure what if anything Sinquefield is going to do.
A spokesman for Let Voters Decide, the organization that spearheaded the Proposition A victory in November, reiterated that the group would not become involved in the April elections in St. Louis and Kansas City.
If Slay is successful in persuading city voters to keep the earnings tax, the next vote on the issue would be in five years -- unless an effort to change that provision of Proposition A succeeds in the Missouri Legislature. Rep. Tishaura Jones, D-St. Louis, has introduced a bill to extend the time required between votes on the tax to 20 years.
Contact Beacon staff writer Dale Singer.