MY 2020 GENERAL ELECTION ENDORSEMENTS

Photo by Tiffany Tertipes on Unsplash

I don’t think I have to tell anyone that we’re facing an historic election. It’s vitally important for everybody to get out and vote if you haven’t already. There’s still time to vote early-absentee at the Board of Election Commissioners or one of their satellite sites (Buder Library — 4401 Hampton Avenue; Central Library — 1301 Olive Street; Julia Davis Library — 4415 Natural Bridge Avenue; Schlafly Library — 225 N. Euclid Avenue). And there’s still time to make a plan to safely vote in person on Election Day (find your polling place).

In addition to encouraging everyone, no matter your political persuasion, to send a message on Tuesday with votes for the entire Democratic ticket, I want to use this post to address the ballot measures at length. Below are my endorsements and recommendations (which reflect my own opinions, by the way, and not that of the Democratic Central Committee). I’m more than happy to talk through any of these on social media or by private message.

NO ON AMENDMENT 1 (TERM LIMITS)

Do you want to amend the Missouri Constitution to extend the two term restriction that currently applies to the Governor and Treasurer to the Lt. Governor, Secretary of State, Auditor and the Attorney General?

Photo by Joshua Sukoff on Unsplash

I generally do not believe term limits are healthy in a Democracy, with the exception, perhaps, of those that apply to chief executives (President, Governor, Mayor, etc.). Corruption doesn’t happen because people stay in office too long — it happens because our system allows too much money and influence to be peddled by too few powerful people, and because our election laws are designed to prevent people from voting rather than encourage them to do so. We should work on those problems, rather than put up cosmetic solutions that have little or no practical effect.

NO ON AMENDMENT 3 (DIRTY MISSOURI)

Shall the Missouri Constitution be amended to:

- Ban gifts from paid lobbyists to legislators and their employees;

- Reduce legislative campaign contribution limits;

- Change the redistricting process voters approved in 2018 by: (i) transferring responsibility for drawing state legislative districts from the Nonpartisan State Demographer to Governor-appointed bipartisan commissions; (ii) modifying and reordering the redistricting criteria.

In 2018, we passed sweeping reforms with CLEAN Missouri, an initiative that lowered campaign contribution limits, practically banned lobbyist gifts, and fixed how we draw legislative districts to ensure a fair, nonpartisan process and an end to gerrymandering. Republicans in the legislature have spent the past two years trying to dismantle that law, this being their latest, most dishonest method of doing so. Amendment 3 packages itself as an ethics reform measure — eliminating lobbyist gifts (which are already limited to only $5), and marginally lowering campaign contribution limits. They did these two things in order to trick you into giving them what they actually want — to eliminate the gerrymandering provision of CLEAN Missouri so that they can continue to district themselves into an undemocratic supermajority. We MUST not fall for these dirty tricks. If you want fair district boundaries drawn by nonpartisan experts, and designed specifically with fairness, competitiveness, and demographic makeup of each district in mind, you MUST vote NO on Amendment 3.

YES ON PROPOSITION D (APPROVAL VOTING)

Shall the City of St. Louis adopt an ordinance to:

- establish an open, non-partisan system for elections to the offices of Mayor, Comptroller, President of the Board of Aldermen, and Alderman

- enable voters to choose all the candidates they wish in the open, non-partisan primary

- allow the top two candidates to then compete in a runoff during the general election?

Currently, our local elected officials (Mayor, Comptroller, President of the Board of Aldermen, and Aldermen) are elected in a partisan primary in March, followed by a general election in April. Because the City is heavily Democratic, though, the winner of the general election has always been, with very few exceptions over the years, the winner of the Democratic Primary. That means someone can become Mayor of this City by winning a simple plurality of the Democratic Primary vote. In 2017, for example, Mayor Krewson was essentially elected Mayor with just 32% of that vote. Put another way — our Mayor was opposed by 68% of voters.

That makes little sense to me. It’s undemocratic, even if it helps maintain Democratic Party’s hold on local politics. It makes it harder to build coalitions, and turns lesser-known candidates into spoilers and protest votes. And, as much as I appreciate living in one of Missouri’s few Democratic strongholds, it’s antidemocratic to essentially cut Republicans, third party members, and independents out of the decision making process when it comes to electing our local officials (especially at a time when more and more young people are eschewing the partisan frames of the past and maintaining their independence).

Proposition D transitions the City to a nonpartisan “approval vote” and runoff system. At the March Primary, all candidates, regardless of party, will be on everybody’s ballot. Voters will be permitted to choose as many of the candidates as they please. And then the top two vote-getters will proceed to a runoff election in April.

This isn’t a perfect plan. I’d much prefer an instant runoff/ranked-choice system, which would save money and time and render a better fix to what’s wrong with the system. And folks I respect, like Ald. Spencer, have raised concerns that, by ordinance, nonpartisan candidates would have to gather substantial signatures, and that there may not be enough time to correct that ordinance before filing begins for the March primary. That’s something that will need to be addressed,

On balance, though, I believe a fairer system is necessary, and that this fixes a number of things that are currently wrong with the way we elect local officials. I’m voting YES on Proposition D.

NO ON PROPOSITION 1 (REPEALING RESIDENCY REQUIREMENT FOR CITY EMPLOYEES)

Shall Section 2 of Article VIII of the City of St. Louis Charter, which requires all officers and employees of the City of St. Louis to reside within the City’s boundaries, be amended to permit the employees of the City of St. Louis except for City agency and department directors appointed by the Mayor to reside outside of the City’s boundaries?

Photo by Ricardo Arce on Unsplash

This issue seems to keep coming back. Proponents argue that there are substantial vacancies in city jobs, and that lifting the current residency requirement is necessary to address that. Especially now, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, we have to do everything we can to make sure our police officers, and anyone else charged with enforcing our laws, are accountable to their neighbors. I firmly support the residency requirement and encourage you to vote against Prop 1 in order to keep it.

NO ON PROPOSITION R (EARLY CHILDHOOD EDUCATION FUNDING THROUGH PROPERTY TAX INCREASE)

Shall the City of St. Louis levy an additional tax of six cents per each one hundred dollars ($100.00) of assessed valuation as authorized by Section 210.860 R.S.Mo. for the purpose of providing additional funding for community children’s services, in particular early childhood services for children aged five years and under, in addition to the current levy of nineteen cents per each one hundred dollars ($100) of assessed valuation?

Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

This is a proposition I and a lot of people I know have had to wrestle with. On the one hand, I tend to support marginal tax increases — if they’re fair and progressive — to fund important social programs. And, as Ald. Green and others have pointed out, increasing funding to provide mental health and other services to City kids is important.

But when the school board, the teacher’s union, and the Organization for Black Struggle are all opposed to an education funding initiative, it’s time to look deeper.

Whenever a revenue ballot measure comes up, I want to ask at least three questions (which I’m going to take out of order below):

(1) Where does the money come from?

(2) Where does the money go?

(3) Who’s pushing for it?

The majority of the critiques I’ve seen from the left have involved where the money goes. They argue — rightfully — that we’re creating a public revenue stream that will then go to private childcare facilities. While this doesn’t reallocate any money from public education, it certainly sets a bad precedent to use a tax increase to give money to largely unregulated private facilities, rather than use any and all tax revenue we generate to support public education.

I tend to agree with that argument, though not unreservedly. On the one hand, we’re talking about a new revenue stream, rather than diverting existing funds from public institutions into private ones. We’re also talking about an amount of money that will, at best, allow some needed programming in some facilities, not create a vast, publicly-funded, privately-run capitalist education system.

On the other hand (and I had a law professor who would flunk me for saying this, but…), there is a slippery slope to consider, here, just like with every proposal to privatize public assets. Every time we put public funds toward private, profit-based enterprises, it gets a little bit easier to do it next time. And if we get into the habit of publicly funding privately-run educational programs, what comes next? Will the next tax increase just skip the runaround and go directly to charter schools? (Perhaps that’s why the answer to question 3, above — “who’s pushing for it?” — is largely “charter school proponents.”)

Those questions may seem a little bit conjectural, but if you ask our public school teachers, our teacher’s unions, and our education advocates, they’ll tell you that there are powerful forces at work trying to bring that vision into fruition. And many of those powerful forces are firmly behind this proposition. That should give us all pause.

Just as important as the destination, though, it’s important to look at the source of the funding. Because it’s coming from a fairly large, flat, across-the-board increase in property taxes. And it’s the kind of increase that will have a much greater impact on poorer families than richer ones.

Again, at first blush, a flat rate increase might seem fair. Property taxes reflect valuations of individual properties, so those whose properties are worth more are going to end up paying more.

But Prop R isn’t a progressive increase — it’s a flat one. It doesn’t change the valuation formula to make sure — like our income taxes — that percentage rates grow as property values increase. It is a flat tax hike, across the board. And it isn’t an insignificant raise. Adding six cents for every one hundred dollars of value will raise every property owner’s tax bill by almost a third (31.6%) (from 19 to 25 cents on the same assessed property).

There’s a reason income taxes are progressive. We’ve decided, as a society, that equity requires having folks who have more chip in a little more toward the public good. This is why we argue against creating programs funded entirely by sales tax increases — an extra cent on every dollar spent on toilet paper or food looks a lot different to someone making $15,000.00 / year than it does to someone making $1.5 million.

When it comes to property taxes, then, whether those taxes reflect the property valuation or not, a flat tax increase is always going to be harder on poorer people than richer. If Prop R passes, every single property owner — from Wells-Goodfellow to the Central West End to Bevo Mill — is going to have to pay 31.6% more in property taxes. After the year we’ve had, imagine the impact a 1/3 increase could have on a property owner with a fixed income, or someone who’s been out of work due to COVID-19.

Natalie Vowell explained the consequences of that increase well in her Facebook post about Prop R:

SLPS is not like other Missouri school districts where the penalty for not being able to afford your property taxes is just that you owe the government more money and you get to keep living in your home. In St. Louis City, if you fall 3 years behind on your taxes, you lose your property. Either to a private bidder at the sheriff’s tax auction or to the Land Reutilization Authority. And once a property goes to the LRA, it is no longer considered taxable within the District’s assessment, which depletes school funding. It leaves the tax rolls, essentially for good, and we have one more homeless person, family, or student to serve, now with even fewer resources.

Given the leftover effects of redlining that have already decimated the northside with unfairly assessed property values, Prop R would further perpetuate inequality by extracting resources from people who already face the highest stakes, quashing their opportunity to build generational wealth. Proposition R claims to invest in divested areas. But these areas will continue to be “divested” if we keep siphoning their own funds from them, especially for private entities to provide so-called “education” services with no performance standards or public oversight of their budget.

I spoke with Natalie about this the other day, and she said something that stuck with me:

“These are the little spaces where systemic racism silently lives.”

She was right. These are the spaces — the way we fund our schools, the way we tax property ownership, the way we allocate public funds, the small additions and fees and tax hikes — where systemic racism lives. This is how we continue to perpetuate systemic inequity — by making these seemingly-small decisions, year after year.

I intend to vote NO on Prop R, and I encourage you to do so, too. There are those who disagree, some of whom I respect quite a bit. But the small revenue stream we’ll realize with this increase is not enough to outweigh the potential harm inherent in regressive tax hikes on poor families.

YES ON PROPOSITION T (TELECOM FEE SCHEME)

Should Chapter 23 of the Revised Code of the City of St. Louis be amended to impose a gross receipts tax of seven and one half percent of the gross receipts obtained from Telecommunications Providers, which are and include every entity now or hereafter engaged in a general telecommunication business in the City, providing telecommunication, telecommunications exchange, or local, toll, or long distance, telephone service to its customers with a service or billing address within the St. Louis City limits; and Fiber Networks Providers, which are and include every entity now or hereafter engaged in providing fiber networks, built whole or in part in the City’s public right of way, which are not internet or service providers subject to franchise fees, to customers and other users of fiber networks?

I’ll admit that I didn’t fully understand this proposition until I read Ald. Green’s endorsement of it, so I hope you don’t mind if I borrow heavily from her, here. Currently, network providers pay a “per linear feet right-of-way fee” to provide service. Prop T would replace that fee structure with a gross receipt tax of 7.5%. Customers would not be burdened in any way by the change, and providers would be incentivized to move into areas that currently have poor service. This has worked in other places, and has even seen customer costs decrease while service improves. That seems like a win-win to me. I’m voting YES on Prop T.

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lefty lawyer / trivia host / karaokist / 14th Ward Democratic Committeeman living that STL South City dream. All opinions are my own. Matt@MattBellSTL.com

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Matt Bell

Matt Bell

lefty lawyer / trivia host / karaokist / 14th Ward Democratic Committeeman living that STL South City dream. All opinions are my own. Matt@MattBellSTL.com

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