The Missouri Supreme Court on Tuesday handed transit activist Clay Chastain a partial victory in his crusade to get a massive light-rail plan before Kansas City voters.
But even Chastain says he isn't yet sure how much of a victory it is. In fact, he was upset with the court's ruling.
One thing is clear, though: The case appears to be headed back to a local court for more argument.
Chastain gathered sufficient petition signatures in 2011 to seek voter approval for a 3/8-cent sales tax for 25 years to pay part of the costs of a 22-mile light-rail line, a 19-mile commuter rail line and an 81/2-mile streetcar line. The City Council declined to put it on an election ballot, saying the measure was unworkable, and Chastain sued.
Jackson County Circuit Judge Sandra Midkiff dismissed Chastain's lawsuit, ruling that Chastain had failed to provide sufficient revenue to cover the required city funds for that plan. And a Missouri Court of Appeals panel upheld Midkiff's ruling in January 2013.
But in a 7-0 decision, the Missouri Supreme Court on Tuesday reversed and remanded Midkiff's ruling, sending it back to the circuit court for further review.
Essentially the court said Midkiff erred when she declared the proposed ballot language unconstitutional for violating a provision that bars initiative petitions from appropriating money. The court found that this proposed ordinance does not appropriate money, so it isn't unconstitutional. The proposed ordinance merely raises money.
"The proposed ordinance mandates the imposition of two additional sales taxes. The two new sales taxes are the only actions mandated by the proposed ordinance," the ruling states.
In fact, the high court added, the city wouldn't have to build Chastain's project even if the taxes passed on a ballot.
"Although the preamble and proposed ballot title represent that the new taxes would be used to 'help fund' four specific transportation projects, the ordinance itself does not mandate that the city spend any money, make any plans or do anything at all other than impose the two new sales taxes," the ruling states.
Therefore, the high court said, the proposed ordinance creates no financial obligations for the city and is not an appropriation ordinance that violates the Missouri Constitution.
The court also said that because Midkiff based her rejection of Chastain's lawsuit on that faulty constitutional reading, the decision of whether this goes on the ballot goes back to the circuit court for more argument from both the city and Chastain.
The court specifically expressed no opinion on the merits of Chastain's potential arguments to get his measure on the ballot and gave no hint on how it would rule if that question, through further litigation, reached the high court.
Chastain said Tuesday he was mystified and upset by the court's ruling. Speaking by telephone from his home in Virginia, Chastain said he was trying to reach his Kansas City attorney but had not been able to do so.
"We needed a clarification from the highest court as to how these initiatives should be handled," Chastain said. "I don't think we got that."
Chastain said that his whole purpose in the ballot initiative was to have voters approve the taxes for the purpose of helping to build his light-rail plan. He said the petitions were very clear and that's why people signed them.
"It calls for building a regional transportation plan," Chastain said. "How can you be any more specific than that?" adding that he couldn't imagine how the Supreme Court could have found that the ordinance doesn't require the city to implement his plan.
City Attorney Bill Geary said Tuesday he was still reviewing the opinion and declined to comment further on the next steps for the city in dealing with Chastain's plan.
The ruling comes as the city is advancing its own more modest streetcar plan. The city has just started building a two-mile downtown streetcar starter route but hopes to extend that starter system by eight to 10 miles in the next decade. It hopes to put a possible taxing district, and specific new taxes, before voters south of the Missouri River later this year.