Smart KC voters must kill three dumb ballot issues in 2017

City Council members meet Thursday to discuss an $800 million bond issue.

City Council members meet Thursday to discuss an $800 million bond issue.

On Thursday morning, Kansas City Council members got no closer to deciding whether to put an $800 million bond issue for roads, sidewalks, flood control and public buildings on the April ballot. But wait — what are these?

“These” are four — count ’em, four — initiative petitions circulated by people outside City Hall.

Mayor Sly James and the council by Jan. 19 have to decide whether to put any initiatives on the April ballot. So far, only one has made it; the others appear headed for the August ballot.

The major point today: No matter when they go before the public, at least three of the initiatives deserve to die at the hands of voters.

— A $1 billion “plan” from Clay Chastain to build a longer streetcar system. It’s likely to go on August ballot.

He has no expertise whatsoever to put together such a proposal, especially one that would boost the sales  tax by three-eighths-cent. Kansas City should stay the course with the other, more thoughtful expanded system sought by the KC Regional Transit Alliance.

— A requirement that city funds could not be spent on future streetcar expansion without citywide voter approval. It’s another August ballot nominee.

Sherry DeJanes, a proponent of the plan, told me Thursday that the petition would only restrict how city money is spent. (For example, more than $1 million a year in city funds are helping to finance the current downtown line.) She said expansion proponents could still seek higher property and sales taxes this summer to help KC Streetcar build a longer line down Main Street toward the Country Club Plaza.

I understand the “people must decide” approach behind this idea. But keep this germane fact in mind: The current way to lengthen the line already requires a public voter by the people affected by it — residents closest to the line in a special taxing district. Under current guidelines, they decide whether higher property and sales taxes will be imposed within areas on either side of a streetcar expansion to finance a longer system.

If city funds are needed to make expansion a reality, elected city officials should have the power to make that call — just as they do in spending much of the rest of the Kansas City budget.

— A one-eighth-cent sales tax increase to finance development projects on the East Side. The council on Thursday decided to place it on the April ballot.

I’m all for trying to bring new economic life to the poorest sections of Kansas City. And it’s true that other parts of the city get a lot more in public subsidies through incentive programs for private development.

But imposing a citywide tax for to raise more than $8 million for unknown projects is a poor way to dole out public dollars.  It’s also problematic, because it raises the potential of even more, special-interest tax requests in the future.

Finally, the fourth initiative petition is the one guaranteed to gather the most attention. It’s likely to be on August ballot, too.

It would reduce the fines for marijuana possession in Kansas City from $500 to $25 for possession of 35 grams or less. Jail time also would be ruled out for having that amount.

This approach will deserve healthier public debate no matter when it goes on the ballot.