PITCH WITH PE­TI­TION DRAWS FIRE

The Kansas City Star (Sunday) - - LOCAL - By DAVE HELLING and MICHAEL MANSUR

Sig­na­ture gath­erer’s con­tention that it would help “save our schools” is called “false ad­ver­tis­ing,” but it isn’t il­le­gal.

Stand­ing on the Jack­son County Court­house steps in a chilly wind last week, a man gath­ered sig­na­tures for a pe­ti­tion that he said would help “save our schools.”

The man was ac­tu­ally gath­er­ing sig­na­tures on a statewide pe­ti­tion that could lead to re­peal of Kansas City’s earn­ings tax.

His pitch was not il­le­gal. In fact, Mis­souri law says noth­ing about what pe­ti­tion cir­cu­la­tors can tell vot­ers about the pe­ti­tion they are asked to sign.

That has an­gered and frus­trated pe­ti­tion op­po­nents, who say they think sign­ers have been mis­led.

“It’s false ad­ver­tis­ing,” said Coun­cil­woman Cindy Circo. “It both­ers me deeply that peo­ple think they can save their school district when they’re ac­tu­ally sign­ing some­thing that could dev­as­tate their city gov­ern­ment.”

A spokesman for Let Vot­ers De­cide, the com­mit­tee seek­ing the pe­ti­tion sig­na­tures, said cir­cu­la­tors re­ceived train­ing and a fact sheet and were not in­structed to mis­lead the pub­lic.

“Sig­na­ture gath­er­ers are in­de­pen­dent con­trac­tors,” said Marc Ellinger in an e-mailed state­ment. “We can­not mon­i­tor or con­trol ev­ery­thing one of th­ese in­de­pen­dent con­trac­tors might say. But we cer­tainly have no de­sire or need for them to say any­thing that is not fac­tu­ally cor­rect.”

But Louie Wright, pres­i­dent of Lo­cal 42 of the In­ter­na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion of Fire Fight­ers, said

op­po­nents were looking at le­gal op­tions to ad­dress any mis­lead­ing claims.

“My im­pres­sion is it’s ex­tremely wide­spread,” he said.

What le­gal steps Wright might take are not clear.

“There’s noth­ing in the statute, be­yond what needs to be on the piece of pa­per it­self, that talks about how it’s pro­moted or de­scribed,” said Laura Egerdal, a spokes­woman for the sec­re­tary of state’s of­fice.

Sev­eral vot­ers on the court­house steps last week said they thought they were sign­ing a pe­ti­tion deal­ing with the Kansas City School District.

When asked what re­peal­ing the tax had to do with schools, the man gath­er­ing sig­na­tures, Elvis Mi­nor, said end­ing the earn­ings tax could mean more money for ed­u­ca­tion — thus “sav­ing the schools.”

Let Vot­ers De­cide has raised $1 mil­lion from St. Louis busi­ness­man Rex Sin­que­field for the pe­ti­tion cam­paign. Some of that money will be paid to a Cal­i­for­nia com­pany, Na­tional Pe­ti­tion Man­age­ment Inc., for pe­ti­tion cir­cu­la­tors, such as Mi­nor, and to su­per­vise the pe­ti­tion-gath­er­ing process.

It is le­gal to pay sig­na­ture gath­er­ers in Mis­souri, and many of those seek­ing sig­na­tures are be­ing paid, ac­cord­ing to Let Vot­ers De­cide.

The Cal­i­for­nia com­pany did not re­spond to phone calls and an e-mail seek­ing com­ment. Its Web site said it had gath­ered sig­na­tures for other area ini­tia­tives, in­clud­ing changes in Mis­souri’s gam­bling laws and a stem cell ini­tia­tive.

Com­plaints about in­ac­cu­rate in­for­ma­tion from pe­ti­tion cir­cu­la­tors are com­mon in Mis­souri, where al­most two dozen pe­ti­tions have been ap­proved for cir­cu­la­tion this year.

And com­plaints about in­ac­cu­rate in­for­ma­tion are not lim­ited to pe­ti­tion op­po­nents. Let Vot­ers De­cide said the other side was also dis­tribut­ing mis­lead­ing lit­er­a­ture in an at­tempt to dis­suade vot­ers from sign­ing.

One anti-pe­ti­tion piece, for ex­am­ple, claims the pe­ti­tion would “cut the num­bers of po­lice, fire­fight­ers and emer­gency tech­ni­cians in Kansas City.”

The pe­ti­tion cam­paign, though, ac­tu­ally would only force a statewide vote on changes in Mis­souri’s earn­ings tax law. If the pro­posal were to pass statewide, Kansas City and St. Louis would hold ref­er­en­dums on the earn­ings tax, a 1 per­cent levy on peo­ple who live or work in those cities, ev­ery five years.

If lo­cal vot­ers were to ap­prove a re­peal of the tax, it would phase out over 10 years. The pe­ti­tion would not re­quire spe­cific cuts to any city ser­vices, al­though op­po­nents say a 40 per­cent re­duc­tion in the city’s gen­eral fund would make ma­jor cuts in­evitable if re­place­ment rev­enue could not be found.

Wright, who met last week with Sin­que­field to dis­cuss the earn­ings tax is­sue, de­fended the anti-pe­ti­tion flier.

“It’s cer­tainly a lot more ac­cu­rate than (their claim) that the pe­ti­tions are help­ing the schools,” he said.

While state law does not pro­hibit cir­cu­la­tors from mak­ing in­ac­cu­rate claims about a pe­ti­tion drive, it does al­low sign­ers to re­move their names from pe­ti­tions if they think they have been mis­led, Egerdal said.

Any signer who wants to re­move his or her name must file a no­ta­rized state­ment to that ef­fect with the sec­re­tary of state, giv­ing the signer’s name, ad­dress, county of res­i­dence and the name of the pe­ti­tion signed.

The re­moval must be re­quested be­fore the pe­ti­tion is filed. The dead­line for all pe­ti­tions in Mis­souri is May 2.

Cir­cu­la­tors need roughly 95,000 sig­na­tures from six of the state’s nine con­gres­sional dis­tricts to put the earn­ings tax ques­tion on the statewide bal­lot in Novem­ber. To reach Dave Helling, call 816-234-4656 or send e-mail to [email protected]­star.com.

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