County to review possibility of half-cent sales tax for schools

If public schools in Douglas County are going to reap the benefits of a new countywide sales tax, the levy first must be approved by the Kansas Legislature and county voters.

Tonight, Douglas County commissioners will discuss helping the school districts reach their goal, both financial and political.

Commissioners will review a proposal that would adjust state law to help clear the way for a half-cent countywide sales tax benefiting schools. The commission’s meeting starts at 6:35 p.m. at the County Courthouse, 1100 Mass.

The proposal would give the county permission to call a sales-tax election for schools, likely coinciding with the Nov. 2, 2004, presidential election.

If cleared by legislators and ultimately approved by voters, the half-cent sales tax would be expected to generate $5.8 million a year. The money would be shared by eight school districts with students living in Douglas County.

The three districts based in the county — Lawrence, Baldwin and Eudora — all have sent written requests to the county, urging commissioners to call an election. Commissioners already have agreed, informally, to lobby legislators to push for permission to call an election, but tonight’s meeting will give them a chance to see the concept in writing.

Members of the Lawrence school board have agreed to support the push for a countywide tax, even as political observers have questioned their prospects for even getting election clearance through the Legislature. But if the effort fails, board members still can ask the Lawrence City Commission to call a city election for a citywide sales tax.

In a city scenario, no legislative permission would be needed and the Lawrence district would keep all the money.

Either way, officials know it won’t be easy.

“I’m not sure it’d pass, either city- or countywide,” said Bob Johnson, chairman of the County Commission. “We’d all be really, really embarrassed if we put that to the voters and lose. I’m not sure that’s a risk I’d be willing to take.”

Commissioner Charles Jones said he remained confident that a sales tax for schools would pass and that the possibility of losing was no reason to back off.

But just to be safe, he suggests that polls be conducted to take the pulse of voters before crafting a specific plan.

“Whatever we do, we do it smart,” Jones said.