publisher's note
October 29, 2004

 

Reasons abound to oppose Bistate II
by Bruce Rodgers

The main reason to vote against Bistate II remains the same now, just a few days before the vote on Nov. 2, as it did months ago when it was first proposed. Bistate II gives your and my money to people who will do what they please with it.

Wayne Flaherty, with the group Kansans Against Bi-State, calls that reasoning the biggest argument against the tax. “I really think it’s the accountability issue,” he says, “because people at every level understand it. My money is being spent by someone else, and I don’t have any control over the spending.”

Flaherty may not object to calling Bistate II welfare. And the argument he uses to challenge the soundness of the Bistate II proposal was a major part of the rationale that brought Republicans and Democrats together in the late 1990s to reform the welfare system as it applied to individuals.

But the welfare recipients were poor, with little political clout. They had to take the changes to be accountable.

With Bistate II, the recipients are wealthy on one hand — owners of the Chiefs and Royals — and on the other, well funded — major arts and cultural institutions in Kansas City.

The $1.2 billion proposal would send $180 million each to Arrowhead and Kauffman stadiums. The Chiefs would contribute another $50 million, the Royals $15 million. A fact sheet on the “Think Big” Web site (www.voteBIG.org) states that major improvements are needed to plumbing, electrical and mechanical systems, that concourses need to be expanded, concessions added and restrooms updated. Something called the Metropolitan Stadium Improvements Board supposedly will oversee the spending.

Opponents have a long list of complaints, counterclaims and questions concerning how the tax money is to be spent. For one, Flaherty points to the current lease the teams have with Jackson County as the source of the problem of not maintaining the stadiums. And a 2003 review by the Office of the State Auditor of Missouri under Claire McCaskill of the lease agreement between the teams and the Jackson County Sports Complex Authority pointed to a revenue shortfall by the Authority in meeting “its obligations under the leases without additional funding.”

Flaherty blames Jackson County “only” for not adequately funding needed upkeep of the stadiums and that the agency chose “to wait for a bistate tax bailout from area taxpayers” to solve renovation issues. Taxpayers in Wyandotte, Clay or Platte counties are not at fault, he adds, for the problems at the stadiums.

Missouri-side Bistate II opponents agree with Flaherty. A position paper by Taxpayers Against Bi-State II states that the tax is “not just about stadium renovations or keeping the teams in Kansas City...(it is) also a bailout of the Jackson County Sports Authority.”

Opponents continually stress that passage of Bistate II does not guarantee how the money would be spent at the stadiums, including if the profits generated by the tax would be spent by the teams to improve the teams’ winning percentage on the field.

“The bistate tax is not about building winning teams, it’s about higher profits for team owners,” says Flaherty. “Since the teams keep their books secret, no one will ever know what they do with the profits.”

Opponents laugh at any oversight authority in stadium spending by a board or committee with representatives from both Missouri and Kansas. Flaherty notes that only the Jackson County Sports Authority can legally enforce any contractual obligations made with teams. He calls such a committee “just a group of appointed citizens who only watch and can do nothing except cry wolf.”

If Bistate II passes, some $600 million will be funneled to the arts. That’s a huge amount and over the supposed 12 -to 15-year life of the tax; opponents say it amounts to between $116,000 to $136,000 a day.

The underlying premise by proponents of the tax is that current area arts funding is inadequate for a metropolitan area like Kansas City. Yet anyone familiar with KC’s arts scene knows that the large institutions generally fare well in attracting money; small arts organizations, be it dance, theatre, visual arts or creative writing, struggle to find funding.

Mark Esping with Taxpayers Against Bistate II, likes to point to the $2.5 million spent at KCI on the floor and murals. Factoring in the area’s population, that expenditure alone is “over a dollar per person right there,” he says. Esping adds that proponents claim that spending on arts overall only amounts to a dollar per person.

Pointing out that proponents like to compare Denver’s arts’ spending ($15 per person) to what KC spends, Esping says his figures show that spending on arts for Kansas City, MO residents amounts to $27.66 per person for cultural institutions and arts’ related activities. Figures for the metropolitan area as a whole, says Esping, indicate spending is $7.88 per person.

Esping says he and other opponents arrived at their figures by doing a line-by-line comparison of expenditures for major arts institutions in Denver with Kansas City, using each city’s budget. “We looked at comparable funding of similar institutions in Denver,” Esping says.

The result of such comparison, he says, means “Kansas City has one of the best reputations for private foundation funding of the arts. What it says is that we have great entrepreneurs and (arts) education already. There’s always room for more, but the point is we’re not the chintzy people they (proponents) say we are.”

Accountability in arts’ spending, like in the sports component of Bistate II, remains an issue with opponents of the tax.

After a $50 million handout to help construct a downtown Performing Arts Center — something financial supporters of the Center admit isn’t necessary to ensure building the structure — the remaining tax money will be placed in what is called a Metropolitan Culture Fund.

Interestingly enough, the Think Big Web site points out that “No single institution is guaranteed money from this fund and each will be required to outline what the money is for; who will benefit from it and then be held accountable for how it is spent.”

It appears the Performing Arts Center and its primary financial backer, Julia Kauffman, is exempt from that stipulation.

Final funding decisions and accountability is supposed to reside with the Metropolitan Culture Fund. Grant proposals for funding will be reviewed by citizen advisory committees in each county and by a regional citizen’s advisory committee.

The Think Big Web site avoids mentioning that the Metropolitan Culture Fund will be administered by the Metropolitan Cultural District Commission, also known as the Bistate Commission. It was the Bistate Commission that oversaw the spending on Union Station after the passage of the first bistate tax. Union Station has suffered repeated financial difficulties since renovation was funded by the tax.

As Flaherty points out, “After spending $118 million of bistate money, they have produced a venue with a $10 million per year operating deficit. No one has been called to account for this egregious mismanagement of public funds.”

There’s little denying that major area arts institutions — the Nelson-Akins Museum, Starlight Theatre, the Carlsen Center — will easily get the funding they desired from Bistate II. Those institutions have a network of private donors that yield considerable influence over public policy decisions, many through their financial ventures into the political arena. Smaller arts institutions, organizations and artists themselves will have to fight harder.

Esping, who once owned an art gallery in Lindsborg, KS and served on a state arts committee, says he saw the politicalization of the arts firsthand.

“I found excellence in arts at a common man level,” he says. “It’s very hard to get elitists to look at that.” The result is that arts, crafts and creativity done at the community center or public school level get ignored.

As it’s proposed, adds Esping, there are no set asides or guarantees in the Bistate II arts segment. Advocating a different way, Esping says, “With an egalitarian way of dispensing money, they (small arts groups and artists) will be categorized. That’s the only way to keep this from being a slush fund for the wealthy...as an arts function.”

There’s more to Flaherty, Esping and Terrence Nash’s, another outspoken Bistate II opponent, arguments. On just about every point pushed by proponents — from length of time the tax will be levied to the economic benefits from having sports teams — they have countered with facts and research studies related to similar public funding proposals. The opponents came well prepared. It’s no wonder the proponents refuse to debate the issue much beyond a “quality of life” assertion.

Instead, what we have is millions of dollars being spent (over $3 million versus the opponents’ $30,000) to convince voters that this tax is in their best interest, coupled with rumors of dirty tricks being played, particularly centered on remarks by former Shawnee City Council member Tracy Thomas. Opponents were angry about public comments by Thomas in early October about baseball being “obsolete” and her pointing out the ethnic makeup of Royals players.

Thomas once worked as an assistant to area political consultant Jerry Jett, who helped launch the political consulting career of Pat Gray, primary consultant on the Think Big campaign. Bistate II opponents openly wondered if Thomas made the remarks on purpose to embarrass Bistate II opponents.

Opponents also have questioned the legality of pro-Bistate II signs hanging at Arrowhead Stadium. To date, officials from the Missouri Ethics Commission and state attorney general’s office have not issued responses on the question.

At the very least, this action by proponents in placing political signs espousing a one-sided view on public property raises questions in how fairly and ethically public officials will manage taxpayers’ money if Bistate II passes.

Phil E. Klein, a Johnson County activist, filed a complaint with the Missouri Ethics Commission on Oct. 5. The complaint cites violations based on a KCMO ordinance and Jackson County code, and notes that opponents were not offered equal access. Klein says that he has not heard back from the commission.

“They say that it will be investigated in the near future,” says Klein, “but they didn’t say when or how or where. They’re sweeping it under the rug, and in my opinion, the Ethics Commission doesn’t want to make waves.”

The term “welfare queen” was used to describe individuals milking the system at the expense of taxpayers. Viewing the Think Big campaign as more akin to “Think Pig” delivers a similar connotation.

Like welfare for individuals that saw reform, corporate welfare needs reform. Voting against Bistate II is a good place to start.

For more information, visit the following Web sites: www.voteBIG.org, www.fieldofschemes.com, www.sportsvenues.com, www.bi-state.info, www.taxhog.com and www.kansasmeadowlark.com.

Bruce Rodgers can be contacted at publisher_editEKC@kcactive.com.


              
              
                 

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