Strong majority favors local sales tax option, but support softening

jbrammer@herald-leader.comFebruary 9, 2014 

FRANKFORT — A majority of Kentucky voters favor a proposed constitutional amendment that would give them the right to approve or reject a temporary local sales tax increase for specific building projects, although support has softened during the past year.

A Herald-Leader/WKYT Bluegrass Poll conducted from Jan. 30 to Feb. 3 shows 60 percent of registered voters favor the constitutional amendment and 24 percent oppose it. Sixteen percent remain undecided.

Republicans were slightly more supportive than Democrats, with 63 percent of Republicans and 57 percent of Democrats saying they would vote for the amendment if given the chance. More than half of respondents supported the proposal in every demographic group surveyed, including political ideology, gender, age, race, education, income and geography.

The poll, conducted by SurveyUSA and in partnership with The Courier-Journal and WHAS-TV in Louisville, interviewed 1,082 registered Kentucky voters using automated phone calls and cellphone surveys. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

When the same question was asked of voters in a February 2013 Courier-Journal Bluegrass Poll, 72 percent of respondents supported the amendment and 19 percent opposed it.

Despite the decline, the latest poll results pleased Gov. Steve Beshear and the mayors of Kentucky's two largest cities, who are urging state legislators to put the issue on the ballot in November.

"The poll indicates that a majority of Kentuckians want the opportunity to utilize a local-option sales tax, which would allow communities to fund specific capital projects for a defined period of time, provided they get voter support," Beshear said. "It's a good deal for our communities and gives our citizens a direct voice in what projects should go forward."

Beshear said many Kentucky communities "have been forced to put off needed improvements in infrastructure for years, to the point where the need is critical."

Lexington Mayor Jim Gray said people generally support a local-option sales tax because "they want to have a voice ... a vote ... in what kinds of investments are made in their communities."

No bill seeking the constitutional amendment has been filed during this year's state legislative session.

"We're working on it, and it will be filed soon," Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer said.

At the moment, Fischer said, the proposal would give localities permission to seek no more than a 1 penny increase on the state's 6-cent sales tax for "major infrastructure projects." The tax increase would expire when the project was paid off.

A Louisville-based, nonprofit group pushing the amendment, Local Investments for Transformation, or LIFT, says the tax option could yield $34.7 million a year for Fayette County and $95 million for Jefferson County.

The effort has been endorsed by regional and statewide groups, ranging from the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce to the Kentucky League of Cities and Kentucky Association of Counties.

Thirty-seven of the 50 states allow such local control.

However, the top two leaders of Kentucky's General Assembly do not hold out much hope that the issue will advance during this year's legislature.

Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, said he did not see the proposal "going very far" in the legislature. He said members of his party had "mixed emotions" about changing the Constitution to give more taxing authority to local governments.

Stivers added that he had heard that House Speaker Greg Stumbo opposed the amendment and declared it "dead on arrival" in the House.

Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, said he did not say the measure was dead in the House, but he acknowledged that he had voiced concerns about it to Fischer and Gray.

He said he was concerned "about eroding the opportunity for the state at some point in the future to increase the sales tax and increase its revenue base."

A better way to give tax relief to cities, Stumbo said, would be to remove a cap on local occupational taxes. That would raise money for building projects without requiring a constitutional amendment, he said.

Jack Brammer: (502) 227-1198. Twitter: @BGPolitics. Blog: Bluegrasspolitics.bloginky.com.

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