FRANKFORT — Although the state legislature has not embraced the idea, most Kentuckians support a proposal that would let communities vote to temporarily increase their sales tax rate to fund major projects, a new Bluegrass Poll shows.
Sixty-three percent of Kentucky voters would support the proposed change to the Kentucky Constitution, while 23 percent said they would oppose it, according to the survey of 1,917 registered voters. Fourteen percent said they were not sure what they thought of the idea.
The Bluegrass Poll, conducted March 3 to 8 by SurveyUSA for the Herald-Leader and WKYT-TV in Lexington and The Courier-Journal and WHAS-TV in Louisville, has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.2 percentage points.
A local-option sales tax has been heavily discussed during this year's Kentucky General Assembly, but barring a legislative miracle on the final days of the session — March 23 and 24 — it appears unlikely to win approval.
Senate President Robert Stivers, who has said he supports the measure, said he did not know whether the poll's findings might improve the proposal's chances during next year's legislative session.
If approved by voters statewide in 2016, the measure would allow local governments to propose an increase of up to 1 percentage point in the state's 6 percent sales tax to fund a specific project. Any increase then would have to be approved by local voters and would expire after the project was paid for.
After years of failure, the proposal won approval in the Democratic-led House last month on a 62-35 vote. But the measure, House Bill 1, has been stuck in the Senate State and Local Government Committee since Feb. 19 and is not expected to get a hearing.
Supporters, especially Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer and Lexington Mayor Jim Gray, have pushed the constitutional amendment for three years.
House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, said he was "not surprised" by the poll results.
"As Senate President Stivers himself said, 'This is the purest form of democracy,'" said Stumbo.
The proposal "should be one of the easiest votes for a legislator to take, so I really do not understand why it faces such obstacles in the Senate," he said. "Nearly 40 states already have this in place, and they're using it to improve their communities in ways that would be difficult, if not impossible, otherwise."
Stumbo said he hoped opponents "will see the light in 2016."
"The people of Kentucky should demand it," he said.
Board members of LIFT Kentucky, a group with endorsements from more than 50 business and civic organizations that support the optional sales tax increase, said in a statement Thursday that the poll demonstrated "that a strong and growing majority of Kentuckians want more local control over the growth and development of their communities."
The board said the state Senate "has refused to debate — even for one minute" the measure and noted that Gov. Steve Beshear and all of Kentucky's living former governors support the plan.
"The Kentucky state Senate has chosen to ignore voter voices and opted instead to maintain the Frankfort status quo," the board said.
Stivers, R-Manchester, said the idea didn't advance this year for several reasons. Some lawmakers, he said, were confused when several businesses asked to be exempt from the potentially higher tax.
"Everybody wanted a carve-out," he said. "First, utilities wanted a carve-out and then the Thoroughbred industry. Support started waning."
Stivers said some legislators simply are opposed to "anything that might raise taxes anywhere."
But the Senate president held out some hope.
"Even if we had passed it this year, it would not have gone on the ballot for voters to decide until November next year," he said. "We could address it early next year and try to get it on the November 2016 ballot."
A Bluegrass Poll last year showed 60 percent of Kentuckians supported the local-option sales tax, while 24 percent were against it. Sixteen percent were undecided. In February 2013, 72 percent of those surveyed supported the proposed amendment, the poll found.
This year's poll showed strong support among men (67 percent) and women (60 percent).
All age groups in the poll recorded at least 62 percent approval. Republicans were slightly more likely to support the idea than Democrats, 66 percent to 60 percent.
The poll found that support for the proposal increased with education and income.
Fifty-eight percent of respondents with a high school education supported it while 65 percent with four years of college backed it. Sixty-two percent of respondents with an income of less than $40,000 said they would vote for the amendment, while 67 percent of those making more than $80,000 liked it.
Poll respondent Melanie McCloud, a retired bookkeeper in Lexington, said she supported the proposal because it gives local communities more control.
"I would like determining on my own what taxes I pay rather than having Frankfort or Washington determine that," said McCloud, who agreed to a follow-up interview with the Herald-Leader.
But Joseph Wood of Livingston County, a senior studying history at Murray State University, cautioned that politicians don't always keep their word.
"They're saying this tax would be temporary (and expire) once the project is completed, but I don't know if they would ever get rid of it once government is getting tax money," he said.