‘Yes on Prop P’ Backers Also Pushed April’s Sales Tax Hike in the County

Nov 6, 2017 at 6:26 am
Prop P, which city voters will decide tomorrow, would raise the sales tax one half-cent, with the majority of funds going for public safety. - THEO WELLING
Prop P, which city voters will decide tomorrow, would raise the sales tax one half-cent, with the majority of funds going for public safety.
With just hours to go before Tuesday’s city-wide vote on whether to increase the sales tax in St. Louis, four organizations — one for-profit company and three non-profits — have been the sole donors to Citizens for a Safer St. Louis, the “Yes on Proposition P” political action committee.

As of press time, the committee’s campaign finance reports show that Centene Corporation, Civic Progress, Regional Business Council and the St. Louis Police Foundation donated a combined total of $375,000 to the PAC. Their money has been funding the campaign for Prop P, which asks city voters to approve a half-cent sales tax designed chiefly to increase police salaries.

Three of the same donors funded a campaign for a similar sales tax hike initiative by an identical name in St. Louis County earlier this year — the very initiative that city leaders have claimed forced their hands, requiring the city to raise police officer compensation or risk losing cops to departments in the county. Centene donated $250,000 to STL Citizens for Safety, the county’s Prop P campaign committee. Donations by Civic Progress and Regional Business Council — along with contributions from St. Louis Regional Chamber and $200,000 from conservative philanthropist Rex Sinquefield — brought the county campaign total to $710,000 before the vote. (Following Prop P’s passage in the county, additional donations came in from Spire [formerly Laclede], Enterprise Holdings, Anheuser Busch Companies and David Steward of World Wide Technology.)

In addition to funding the previous increase in St. Louis County, the groups have connections and ties that go beyond simply being part of the power elite in a mid-sized metropolitan area. In fact, the executive directors of two of the non-profits — Civic Progress and the Regional Business Council — are board members of the third, the Police Foundation. And Centene’s CEO was the biggest donor to Mayor Lyda Krewson, who is the public face of Prop P advocacy.

Ed Rhode, who is the spokesman for Citizens for a Safer St. Louis and served the same role with STL Citizens for Safety, declined to comment on donor or campaign strategies.

Civic Progress’s Action Committee has made the largest donation ($125,000) to the city’s Prop P campaign to date. In 1953 then-Mayor Joseph Darst established Civic Progress, an invite-only organization comprised of top corporate and banking executives — many of which were involved with the Veiled Prophet, the society of St. Louis elite still active today. Civic Progress aided in expediting urban renewal projects downtown and other regional policy initiatives. Today, the organization is made up of chief executives representing 33 of the area’s largest businesses, including BJC, Express Scripts, Boeing and Ameren. Mayor Krewson is an ex-officio member.

Civic Progress is known to take behind-the-scenes action on local initiatives that its membership deems to be of regional significance, including various development efforts around the proposed NFL stadium, Lambert Airport and Scottrade Center, which a cohort of its members own under the name Kiel Center Partners. Its website lists public safety as a top priority area, highlighting efforts to raise funds for the St. Louis Police Foundation.

Proposition P is not the first sales tax hike the organization has backed. According to Civic Progress’ website, the group supported recent campaigns for city-wide sales tax hikes in 2008 and 2010, in addition to a regional tax hike in 2013 to fund what the group considered regional priorities. The 2008 campaign was unsuccessful.

Civic Progress is led by board president Suzanne Sitherwood, president and CEO of Spire, and chairman Hugh Grant, president and CEO of Monsanto. Civic Progress is based within the city, and its top leaders and executive director Thomas Irwin all live here.

The Regional Business Council donated $100,000 to the pro-Prop P PAC. RBC is comprised of more than 100 executives of the region’s large and middle-market employers. Often in coordination with Civic Progress, RBC’s regional governance team has worked to attract sports entertainment to the city, develop Lambert Airport and pass a sales-tax hike for central corridor development. Both Anthony Tersigni, chairman of RBC’s board and president and CEO of Ascension, and Kathy Osborn, executive director of RBC, live outside the city limits.

RBC led the creation of the St. Louis Police Foundation, according to its 2009-2010 Outcomes Report, as part of its “Regional Governance Initiative” chaired by Boeing’s George Roman and Husch Blackwell’s Greg Smith. RBC has secured millions in funding for the St. Louis Police Foundation since 2007, according to its 2013-2014 report. RBC and Police Foundation board member Bob O’Loughlin, Chairman and CEO of hotel and restaurant group Lodging and Hospitality Management, was outspoken about the loss of revenue from downtown concerts cancelled after protests broke out following former officer Jason Stockley’s acquittal. O’Loughlin told the St. Louis Business Journal, “The most important thing is to mobilize the city, county and state to work to carry on with these events and provide safety for people going to them.”

The St. Louis Police Foundation donated $50,000 to Citizens for a Safer St. Louis. The foundation funds the city and county police departments through private donations. Gifts have included weapons and surveillance technology (further militarizing the force), along with training sessions, renovations to police headquarters and retrofits of an armored car and an ice cream truck. The foundation’s board is comprised of members of the local business community, including developers, investors, private security firm and healthcare executives.

The current board president, Douglas Albrecht, played a significant role in the creation of the foundation after building Centric Group and Keefe Group, which until recently were subsidiaries of Enterprise Holdings. Keefe Group holds contracts with more than 800 private and public prisons and jails — including the Missouri Department of Corrections and the city and county’s jails such as the Hall Street Workhouse — allowing it to profit from sales of inmate phone systems, commissary, email and package delivery systems. Both Albrecht and executive director Michelle Bagwell live in St. Louis County.

According to the St Louis Post-Dispatch, Rex Sinquefield is one of the biggest supporters to the foundation. Additional notable 2017 sponsors include Centric Group, Spire, Enterprise, BJC, Lodging Hospitality Management, Husch Blackwell and Anheuser-Busch. Based on a list which until recently was publicly available on the foundation’s website, the executive directors of both the RBC and Civic Progress are also board members of the Police Foundation.

Centene Corporation, the healthcare service company operating Medicaid programs for state governments, also donated $100,000 to Citizens for a Safer St. Louis. Centene employs around 1,000 local residents. Last year it received one of the region's largest tax incentive packages for the expansion of its headquarters in downtown Clayton.

Centene has made contributions to the Civic Progress Action Committee over five of the last six years. The company’s president and CEO Michael Neidorff is a member of Civic Progress. Neidorff and his wife Noemi, who reside in Clayton, were the largest donors to Mayor Lyda Krewson’s mayoral campaign, with a combined total donation of $50,000.

The campaign opposing Prop P is a much leaner operation. A coalition of 21 nonprofits and political groups, along with religious leaders and elected officials, urged a no vote on Prop P at a late October press conference. Of these, three elected officials — Treasurer Tishaura Jones, Representative Bruce Franks, and Alderwoman Megan Green — have spent a combined $7,850 on radio, literature and Facebook ads calling for opposition to the proposition, says Alderwoman Green. (Because the elected officials are paying for the ads out of their personal campaign committees, not a shared issue-based group, official reports of the expenditures will not be public for several months.)

In an interview, David Dwight, communications and strategy catalyst with Forward Through Ferguson, confirmed that board co-chairs Rebeccah Bennett and Zack Boyers announced their opposition to Prop P at a fundraising event this Saturday. Forward Through Ferguson works to engage regional leadership in public safety reform efforts outlined in the Ferguson Commission Report. Dwight says, “The [Stockley] verdict and round of protests increases pressure on the region to engage with deeper reforms, but regional leaders have not taken action to engage in a full-faith effort with these reforms. Prop P shows this contrast.”

Amidst continued calls from a broad base of residents who oppose increasing sales taxes — which disproportionately affect low-income residents — as well as resistance to the plan to fund a police force without significant changes in accountability, the backers of Proposition P carry on a coordinated drive of their own regional agenda. Of the ballot initiative, Treasurer Jones says, “At times like these, when our people are in the streets demanding justice, asking us to increase taxes is tone-deaf.”

Caitlin Lee lives in south city and volunteers with Team TIF. The RFT welcomes concise essays on topics of local interest. Contact [email protected] if you've got something to say.