Language on “educational materials” about an upcoming use-tax vote drew formal ethics complaints against City of Columbia officials in November.
A bill proposed by Rep. Lyndall Fraker, R-Marshfield, and heard by the House Elections and Elected Officials Committee on Wednesday, would add similar language to the state’s sample ballot use-tax questions.
Missouri shoppers often pay no sales tax when buying from out-of-state companies. The state collects a use tax equal to the state sales tax rate of 4.225 percent on those purchases, including many online sales. Localities can ask voters to approve a use tax equal to the local sales tax.
The new language would read: “Approval of this question will remove a competitive disadvantage that local retailers face against certain online and out-of-state retailers who are not currently subject to the local sales tax by imposing such tax equally.”
Many localities are trying to pass a use tax to help local brick-and-mortar stores compete with online retailers such as Amazon and others, Fraker said. He said he wants to make the ballot measure easier for voters to understand.
Mike Martin, a writer for the local publication Columbia Heart Beat, reported that he had filed complaints to the Missouri Ethics Commission against Columbia City Manager Mike Matthes and “City Hall” for using public funds to advocate for a November use tax ballot measure.
A local use tax was rejected by Columbia voters for the third time in a single-issue election. The ethics commission dismissed complaints against Matthes, Mayor Brian Treece and each City Council member in early February.
Martin took issue with the city’s October newsletter, a flyer the city distributed and videos posted on the city website and City Channel. He said a section of the city flyer titled “Why is this important to City of Columbia’s residents?” openly advocated for the use-tax measure, according to previous Missourian reporting.
The section read: “The Use Tax levels the playing field for local businesses who are required to pay the local Sales Tax. With no local Use Tax in place, consumers have an incentive to purchase items from out-of-state vendors instead of buying locally. This costs the city local jobs and tax revenue because millions of dollars are sent out of our state and local economy.”
James Klahr, ethics commission executive director, dismissed Martin’s complaints and cautioned localities to “avoid language such as ‘leveling the playing field’ or similar terms that could be construed by voters as indirectly advocating for a use-tax measure.”
In the elections committee hearing, Rep. Pat Conway, D-St. Joseph, said he was concerned the bill’s language would make localities think they were required to use the exact model ballot language. The statute requires localities to use language that is “substantially” the same.
Rep. Peggy McGaugh, R-Carrolton, and Rep. Dan Stacy, R-Blue Springs, expressed concern that the language advocated for the bill.
“It screams to me, ‘vote yes!’ even though it doesn’t say that,” McGaugh said.
The strongest opposition came from Rep. Nick Marshall, R-Parkville, who questioned a lobbyist advocating for the bill on behalf of the Missouri Association of Counties.
Marshall asked how that organization decides what bills to support, considering his constituents “hate, hate, hate,” taxes, while folks from other parts of the state merely dislike, or even support taxes. He also took issue with the proposed ballot language.
“That’s not just informative language. That’s pretty persuasive when you say, ‘we’re going to solve a competitive disadvantage,’” Marshall said.
Marshall also pushed back on an argument made by Missouri Municipal League Deputy Director Richard Sheets who argued that the proposed language came directly from sample ballot language used by localities to continue taxing locally registered vehicles, trailers and boats that were purchased out of state.
Missouri cities and counties were required to pass a ballot measure to continue to tax those out-of-state purchases after the Missouri Supreme Court ruled state and local sales taxes only applied to in-state purchases.
“Just because we used it then, over the strenuous objections of some conservative members, I’m not sure it’s the best idea to continue to use persuasive language like that,” Marshall said.
When Fraker asked Marshall if he thought the ballot language was accurate, Marshall said brick-and-mortar retailers have some advantages over internet sellers.
“It’s not our business to get involved in the marketplace,” Marshall said.
Fraker told the representatives that he’d be open to changing the language.
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