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Local option sales tax in Kentucky makes conservative common sense

John David Dyche

"Let the people vote on investing in their community. An additional one penny sales tax pays for specific community projects, voted on by the people. Then the tax goes away."

So says the group Local Investments for Transformation, or LIFT, about a local option sales tax in Kentucky. Two bills in the Kentucky General Assembly would put a constitutional amendment on the ballot that would allow such a tax. The bills, HB 399 and SB 135, have impressive bipartisan backing.

The House bill has fourteen Democratic sponsors and three Republican sponsors, including Jeff Hoover of Jamestown and John Carney of Campbellsville, both members of GOP leadership. Republican Paul Hornback of Shelbyville introduced the Senate bill, of which five Democrats are co-sponsors.

This bipartisan sponsorship reflects the broad support for the local option sales tax throughout the state. In addition to Governor Beshear, mayors, county judges, chambers of commerce, labor unions, industry groups, professional associations, and media of all sizes and sorts support this economic development tool that is already working well in localities across the country.

It is important for people to understand that neither putting the constitutional amendment on the ballot nor passing it would raise the sales tax anywhere. The one percent increase requires a vote of the people before it goes into effect in a community.

LIFT emphasizes that "the new revenue would be dedicated to funding a specific set of projects chosen by a community-wide, citizen-driven process. It would not go into a city's or county's general fund. "Moreover, if the citizens vote for the tax, "it ends when the projects are paid off and any future local option sales taxes would not overlap and would require a new referendum vote."

Polling suggests overwhelming public support for the amendment, but its prospects are uncertain in this year's General Assembly. Hornback told WDRB that he doubted his bill would pass this year, but that has not stopped Louisville mayor Greg Fischer, a Democrat and one of the idea's most energetic backers, from pushing hard for it.

"The trend is definitely positive," Fischer says. "This is about direct American democracy, giving people the right to vote that citizens in 37 other states already have."

Indeed, the local option sales tax embodies common-sense, good government principles that most conservatives and Republicans profess to support. It puts power at the local level closest to the people; is taxation with direct representation since the citizens have the right to vote on it; has high accountability by being tied to specific purposes; taxes consumption instead of savings or work; and sunsets instead of continuing indefinitely.

And just because a tax is proposed does not mean it will pass.

In 2007, when Lieutenant Governor Jerry Abramson was Louisville mayor, he went back on his word and pushed for a new library tax. After a vigorous public debate the voters soundly rejected it by a 2-1 margin. Advocates for any new sales tax levy will have to make a compelling case.

Some Louisville Republicans oppose the local option sales tax on the grounds that Louisville is already too highly taxed. They may be right about that, but they should offer a detailed and specific tax reform proposal instead of reflexively opposing the local option sales tax. Also, if the people approve an additional penny in the current tax climate they must really want the projects in question.

Citizens should urge their representatives in Frankfort to support the local option sales tax bills, HB 399 and SB 135. There is no good reason why state government should forbid the people from having this tool to use in improving their local communities as they see fit.

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