Americans for Prosperity campaigning against sales tax in Douglas County referendum

photo by: Associated Press

Chairman of the board of Americans for Prosperity David Koch speaks at the Defending the American Dream summit hosted by Americans for Prosperity at the Greater Columbus Convention Center in Columbus, Ohio, Friday, Aug. 21, 2015. (AP Photo/Paul Vernon)

A group the billionaire Koch brothers support is actively campaigning in Douglas County against passage of the proposed countywide sales tax issue.

A door hanger, which states it is a paid advertisement of Americans for Prosperity, was shared with the Journal-World after it was left last week on the door of a west Lawrence home. The flier urges residents to vote against the half-cent sales tax, but makes no mention of the $44 million expansion of the county jail, $11 million behavioral health campus or added behavioral health services Douglas County officials say they will fund with revenue from the tax.

In an email to the Journal-World, Jeff Glendening, state director of Americans of Prosperity, said the group started campaigning against the sales tax at the request of local members.

“It’s not our first involvement in a local tax fight – just our first in Douglas County,” he wrote. “This tax increase would drive up the cost on things like groceries and other items Douglas County shoppers purchase, which hurts everyone, especially those who are already living paycheck to paycheck.”

Billionaire brothers David H. Koch and Charles Koch provided seed money to found Americans for Prosperity in 2004 and back the political advocacy group. The organization’s website states it has more than 3.2 million members “fighting each day for lower taxes, less government regulation and economic prosperity for all.”

Content on the flier states that Lawrence would have the second highest sales tax rate in the state “for a large city” if the referendum is approved. Passage of the ballot question would raise the sales rate in Lawrence to 9.55 cents per dollar. According to the Kansas Department of Revenue, that would be second only to the 9.75 cent rate in Junction City among the state’s larger cities, although a number of smaller cities have sales tax rates of more than 10 percent.

Americans for Prosperity is not alone in fighting passage of the referendum. The Douglas County chapter of the NAACP, Justice Matters, Kansas Appleseed and Lawrence Sunset Alliance announced in March they were forming the Jail No coalition to campaign against the referendum.

Douglas County Commission Chair Nancy Thellman said Americans for Prosperity was bringing its national agenda to the campaign, while ignoring the needs the sales tax would address.

“It’s amazing how the county’s initiative has attracted so much attention from national-level agendas,” she said. “The Koch brothers are now playing in our local sandbox with their national anti-tax agenda. It makes it hard for people to concentrate on the very real, local issues at hand of fixing our overcrowded county jail and adding more and better mental health services to our entire community.”

If voters approve the sales tax, it will raise an estimated $9.8 million annually to fund construction of the $44 million jail expansion and an $11 million behavioral health campus. It would also provide $5 million a year for new behavioral health programming and $1 million of the $6.1 million needed per year to operate an expanded jail.

The Douglas County Clerk’s Office will send out nearly 63,000 mail-in ballots Tuesday for the referendum to registered voters in the county. Ballots returned by noon May 15 will be counted.