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Missouri voters weigh sales tax limits

David A. Lieb
Associated Press

Jefferson City, Mo. — Missouri voters will be the first in the nation to decide whether to amend their state constitution to prohibit sales taxes from being expanded to services such as auto repairs, haircuts, legal work and financial accounting.

The proposal on the Nov. 8 ballot is a backlash against efforts in numerous cash-hungry states that have considered extending sales taxes beyond goods to keep pace with the service-based economy.

Concerned that states could try to tax services related to home sales, national and local organizations representing real estate agents have poured about $7 million into a campaign to pass the amendment, with hopes of a trend-setting victory.

“If we can do this here, it would be a model for the rest of the country,” Missouri Realtors CEO John Sebree said.

Opponents have not reported raising any money to fight the measure. But the Missouri Municipal League warns there could be “dire consequences” for police, fire and road departments if governments are constitutionally barred from enlarging their sales tax base.

“It’s a short-sighted attempt to solve a problem that doesn’t exist,” said the league’s deputy director, Richard Sheets.

Sales taxes have long provided an important financial foundation for governments. They are levied by 45 states and more than 10,000 local jurisdictions. But only a few states charge sales taxes on a wide array of services.

State revenue from general sales and gross receipts taxes has rebounded more slowly than individual income taxes since the recession ended in 2009, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures.

Some states have sought to compensate for sluggish sales tax growth with proposals to apply the tax more widely.

In the past five years, about half the states have considered some sort of proposal to expand sales taxes to services, according to bill tracking by the National Conference of State Legislatures, the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, the National Association of Realtors and research by the Associated Press. Many of the proposals have failed.

Missouri is the first state where voters will consider a constitutional amendment putting a halt to sales tax expansions, according to the NCSL. Amendment 4 would bar state and local sales taxes from being applied to any transaction or service not already taxed as of Jan. 1, 2015.