Consider Tuesday night's primary election a warm-up.
Lawrence city commissioners early this morning agreed to up the stakes in the November general election by placing two sales tax questions on the ballot.
One sales tax would be a two-tenths-of-a-percent tax to support the operations of the city's public transit service. The second question would be a three-tenths-of-a-percent tax to improve street maintenance, improve sidewalks, purchase fire trucks, undertake a major North Lawrence stormwater project and build the Burroughs Creek rail trail in eastern Lawrence.
"I'm not fearful that this won't pass," Mayor Mike Dever said as commissioners debated the proposal after the midnight hour.
The issue created strong debate among commissioners, who were split on whether to present the sales tax initiatives as one winner-take-all question or to split the issue into two questions that would allow voters to give a thumbs-up or down to the city's transit system.
Supporters of the transit system spoke for nearly an hour urging the commission to combine the two votes and to increase the amount of funding for the transit system. Members of the crowd lobbied commissioners to increase the transit portion of the sales tax to 0.25 percent to ensure that the bus system will have enough funding to continue operating at current service levels.
A majority of commissioners rejected both pleas. Commissioners on a 3-2 vote agreed to place two separate questions on the ballot.
"These issues are going to have to stand or fail on their own merits," Commissioner Sue Hack said.
Commissioners Mike Amyx and Boog Highberger both supported combining the sales tax into one vote, saying it would make it easier to develop a coalition to pass the sales tax.
Members of the crowd agreed and said it would be difficult to muster support unless a greater amount of the sales tax was devoted to the transit system.
"If you don't set it up to work, we won't work for it," said Hilda Enoch, a longtime public transit advocate. "It has to be the 0.25."
The idea of increasing the transit sales tax did not gain traction with a majority of commissioners.
The November vote is shaping up as a survival test for the city's bus system. Commissioners have pulled all property tax funding for transit services out of the 2009 budget and are relying solely on the future sales tax to fund the system. If voters don't approve the transit sales tax, commissioners have no firm contingency plan to keep a bus system operating.
The bus system is facing a funding crisis after operational costs are expected to increase by $1 million in 2009 because of rising fuel costs and aging buses.