GEORGE KENNEDY: Rex Sinquefield doesn't know what's best for the majority

Thursday, October 14, 2010 | 12:33 p.m. CDT; updated 2:48 p.m. CDT, Thursday, October 14, 2010

*The 1 percent tax on earnings funds $137.5 million of the St. Louis city budget and $202 million of the Kansas City city budget.

Rex Sinquefield is a remarkable man. Raised in an orphans’ home, educated in parochial schools and then the University of Chicago, he made a fortune the new-fashioned way by managing other people’s money, billions of it.

Since he retired and came home to St. Louis, with his wife Jeanne, he has donated heavily to child welfare programs, financed a chess club that just landed next year’s national tournament and founded a think tank. Jeanne Sinquefield, who heads the couple’s charitable foundation, is underwriting the New Music Initiative here at MU.

Unfortunately for the rest of us, though, Mr. Sinquefield’s interests extend beyond philanthropy. Like many self-made men, he thinks he knows what’s best for others – in his case the state of Missouri. He has the resources to back up his beliefs.

So he has underwritten the so-far-failed effort to weaken our public schools by state-financed vouchers. He funded the campaign against raising the state’s minimum wage, another failed effort. He has formed more than 100 political action committees, for the avowed purpose of getting around campaign donation limits, which he also opposes. His think tank churns out right-wing policy papers, including a recent one titled “Why a sales tax is better for Missouri than an income tax.”

His political clout is likely to be even greater in the next legislature. He has already given at least $200,000 to the presumptive next speaker of the House, Steve Tilley, and even more to other Republican campaign committees.

And now comes Proposition A, which will confront us on the Nov. 2 ballot. This might more accurately be called the Sinquefield Proposition. It proposes to destroy the finances of the state’s two biggest cities, while denying to any other city the right to tap the earnings of those who use city services while avoiding the burden of helping to pay for those services.

That’s not what the formal ballot language of the proposition says, of course. That’s merely what it would do.

If Proposition A passes, the citizens of St. Louis and Kansas City would have to vote next year on whether to retain the 1 percent tax on earnings that funds *$137.5 million of the city budget in St. Louis. In Kansas City, the budget hit would be $202 million. Other cities would be prohibited forever from even voting on whether to impose such a tax.

Proposition A was bought and paid for by Rex Sinquefield. The Post-Dispatch calculates that he paid an average of almost $5 for each signature collected by mercenaries to put it on the ballot, and he has contributed, so far, $6.8 million to the campaign to get it passed.

Mr. Sinquefield says he isn’t out to cripple local governments. He says he is agnostic on the question of how to replace the lost revenue. But remember the title of that Show-Me Institute policy paper. The sales tax is notoriously regressive, shifting the burden disproportionately from the richest to the poorest among us.

An even more important objection to the Sinquefield reshaping of our state is the one raised last month by a Post-Dispatch editorial: “Is a multimillion-dollar campaign funded by a wealthy individual – based on economic theory that is questionable at best – good for democracy?”

The question, it seems to me, answers itself. The answer is No.

So far, most of Mr. Sinquefield’s attempts to buy public policy have failed. It remains to be seen what he’ll get for his investment in the legislature. We voters have a chance Nov. 2 to reject his latest meddling in our affairs. We should do just that.

George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.

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Ellis Smith October 14, 2010 | 1:30 p.m.

What would you have Mr. Sinquefield do with his fortune? The easiest thing in the world is to spend someone else's money. The university does it daily.

But Mr. Sinquefield is a bit scary. The next thing he could propose (and lobby for in the legislature) might be that MU makes a genuine attempt to streamline its operations and to reduce administrative overhead, using the money saved to increase compensation for faculty and lower level staff. Blasphemy!

PS: In case it has escaped your attention, some economic theories this state and this nation are presently operating upon are questionable at best.

(Report Comment)
Mike Martin October 14, 2010 | 2:45 p.m.

One wonders if this earnings tax -- and the windfall it has created for corrupt city officials -- hasn't contributed in a substantial way to the decline of St. Louis and Kansas City.

For a look at how segregation, crime, poorly-maintained public housing, and screwed up government policies have taken their tolls on these two great American cities, drive through them.

Kansas City -- and its schools -- are still struggling under acres and acres of blighted residential districts, despite some years of [mostly private-sector] generated revitalization.

"Students have been leaving the Kansas City public schools in droves," the New York Times reported in March. "Close to 18,000 students exited to better suburban districts or charter schools in the last 10 years alone. The student enrollment is now 17,400 children, who are mostly black and impoverished."

Called a "chaotic, almost non-functioning body" in that report, the KC school board finally shuttered 28 of the district's 61 public schools.

At last count, St. Louis had roughly 6,000 vacant buildings, and still sits on the shell of the old Pruitt-Igoe housing projects, a remnant of failed policies demolished decades ago, but left to rot in the city's geographic heart.

"Four decades of urban decay have left the city of St. Louis, Missouri with some of America's most devastated urban landscapes," says the city's well-known "Built St. Louis" site. "Some people say the city is no longer dying; they say it's dead."

Trying to buy and renovate these old brick beauties can be like a walk through Tammany Hall. Freeman Bosley, the St. Louis alderman who oversees much of the city's most blighted areas, has repeatedly been the object of cronyism and corruption complaints.

Here's Bosley in hypocritical action this March:

So a local-boy-done-good is spending millions of his own dollars to try something different. Given the circumstances, I find it hard to argue with that.


(Report Comment)
Elaine Briggs October 14, 2010 | 3:06 p.m.

So much of this assessment is incorrect. First, If KC or STL ever decided to stop using the earnings tax, it would phase out over a ten-year period. You didn't mention that at all, and it makes a big difference. Second, we don't know how a city would choose to replace that income, or even if it would be needed. I'd be interested to see what kinds of wasteful spending the city would cut if voters get a chance to hold it accountable for how it spends their money.

Second, this is entirely in the hands of voters. In this scenario, I get the same amount of clout that Sinquefield does. I typically don't vote for things I think are a bad idea, do you? How can having everyone in the state vote on something be "buying" public policy? Are you accusing the petition signers and voters of being bought-off? Or are you accusing them of being too stupid to understand the issue? I think we're quite capable, thank you.

You want to talk about a regressive tax? Let me introduce you to the city earnings tax. It's a flat 1% for anyone. That means that the wealthiest CEO is paying the same rate as the most impoverished worker feeding a family of four. Unlike state and federal tax, there is no deduction, no tiers, no exemptions for low-income workers. There is no EBT, no food stamps, no relief whatsoever.

Clearly, there are some things that don't make sense about the earnings tax that voters should get to decide on.

(Report Comment)
John Schultz October 14, 2010 | 8:55 p.m.

So George Kennedy thinks he knows better than Rex Sinquefield. Did he even read the short paper he criticizes by title?

It's obvious he hasn't read the article (or chose to omit this bit from the end of it):

"A sales tax can be viewed as regressive, so we favor exempting poor households from the sales tax — perhaps
those with household income at or below 150 percent of the poverty level."

I think Kennedy's real bias shows through by calling the Show-Me Institute right-wing when it is truly a free market think tank. Does George refer to liberal organizations that he prefers left-wing or does he have a nicer, less offensive term for them?

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith October 15, 2010 | 4:45 a.m.

It's only wrong when the other side does it.

Grown up people acting like children quarreling in a sandbox.

By the way, Schultz, "Little Miss Muffet" and "The Frog Prince," as they apply to Carnahan and Blunt respectively, are COPYRIGHTED. Don't worry, I won't sue.

(Report Comment)
Allan Sharrock October 19, 2010 | 8:27 p.m.

So since George is writing in a paper and he is well off does he some how think he is better suited to tell us how to vote vs. Rex?

(Report Comment)

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