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Commentary: The Big Feast

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 2, 2010 - The Sinquefeld caper had left me feeling like the narrator in a Raymond Chandler novel -- a latter day Philip Marlowe groping his way into a web of ever-deepening contradiction. I might never have figured the thing out if the lieutenant governor hadn't inadvertently spilled the beans.

The big break came on the day after Thanksgiving. Trying to sweat out the wretched excesses of the day before, I'd gone to the gym. As I stepped from the steamy confines of the weight room into the crisp afternoon outside, my doubts swirled like snowflakes in the November winds.

Who was this shadowy Rex Sinquefield and why had he spent more than $11 million of his own money to outlaw a tax that really didn't affect him? Published reports indicated that he opposed local earnings taxes as hindrances to economic development, but that answer just didn't seem to add up.

For one thing, the only cities in the state that have an e-tax are St. Louis and Kansas City, and he was officially a resident of neither. In fact, he'd chosen to locate his Show-Me Institute in St. Louis -- the only city in the eastern half of the state that levies an e-tax. If that was such a fatal detraction, why did he invest here? Was Chesterfield closed when he went shopping for real estate?

Besides, his Show-Me operation figures to be a nonprofit that probably doesn't pay these taxes in the first place. Who spends $11+ million of his own cabbage to get rid of a tax he doesn't have to pay? And why would he care whether people in cities he didn't officially live in had to vote every five years to continue funding their police and fire operations?

True, Rex had reportedly announced that he was not a billionaire, so we have that much in common, but I still couldn't get a handle on this guy. Trying to figure him out was like trying to steal the recipe for soup du jour -- every time you got the answer, the question changed ...

As I slid behind the wheel of my car, I punched on talk radio to catch the 3 o'clock report. The news babe's voice flowed in a velvet purr that made it hard for a man to keep his mind on the intricacies of municipal taxation, but then she said something that jerked my head around like a 15-yard face-mask violation.

It seems that Pete Kinder was in town. He's the lieutenant governor, which is the kind of job normally favored by fugitives from justice -- a low profile sinecure that allows its occupant to operate out of the limelight. To date, Kinder's signature contribution to the public welfare has something to do with a defunct bicycle race.

But word on the street was that Big Pete has his eye on the Republican nomination for governor in 2012. He's presently making the rounds, kissing hands and shaking babies to remind the voting members of the body politic that he still exists.

During an interview earlier in the day, Kinder had suggested that citizens in St. Louis should consider selling Lambert Field, the region's largest airport. Asked why we should slaughter that cash cow, Kinder explained that because the city could lose its earnings tax in a few months -- and with it, over a third of its annual revenue -- we had to find ways to streamline municipal operations.

Like Saul on the road to Damascus, the scales fell from my eyes and I was momentarily blinded by the light of truth. It had never been about the trifling 1 percent tax; it was about the collective revenue it generated. Just as negotiations were almost complete to make Lambert the central hub for air cargo from China, the city's artificially induced budget crisis would necessitate selling that gem to private investors.

Back in the '80s, Carl Icahn had launched a hostile takeover of TWA, ultimately driving that once-soaring enterprise into the ground, taking thousands of good-paying, stable jobs with it. But Icahn was a piker compared to these guys. They didn't set their sights on a mere airline; they were out to steal the whole damned airport.

My thoughts raced as the pieces of the puzzle fell into place: this is what Richie Daley had done in Chicago. Citing budgetary shortfalls, the mayor first sold off the Chicago Skyway, followed by some lucrative downtown parking garages, and finally -- the cherry on top of the sundae -- the parking meter division.

The last deal netted an immediate $1.15 billion for municipal coffers but it forfeited revenue from on-street parking for the next 75 years. The suckers in Chicago were eating their seed corn, blissfully unaware of the famine that awaits them. Daley, incidentally, recently announced he would retire next May, after his plans to privatize Midway Airport fell through.

Back at my place, I rummaged feverishly through my notes. Somewhere in the riot of confusion on my desktop was the Rosetta stone that neatly crystallized the local situation. I finally found what I was looking for underneath a box housing the dying remains of last week's pizza.

It was a quote from a guy named Michael Smith, an attorney from Baker & McKenzie, the outfit that had helped to engineer the Chicago parking deal. Speaking of the financial potential of "public to private partnerships" -- or, P3s as they're known in the trade -- he said, "What's really going to be interesting is when you get to second-tier cities like St. Louis, Louisville, Indianapolis and Cincinnati. Then you really have a huge market for this."

There it was: Nobody was worried about some working stiff like me paying his measly 1 percent to provide for cops and fire-fighters. If I were spared that burden at my present income level, it would take me approximately 11,000 years to save the money that Sinquefield had spent on a single campaign.

No, this had to be about the big feast. The wolves would drag the city to its knees so they could feed off its carcass. The e-tax debate was just a minor skirmish in the larger battle to downsize government by converting public treasure into private fortune.

Then again, maybe I'm just paranoid. Mayor Slay points out that the FAA would not allow the city to pocket profit from the sale of Lambert. That may be true for a transfer of ownership, but what about long-term leases like the one on Chicago parking meters?

And even if I am paranoid, I still can't shake the feeling that Joseph Heller knew what he was talking about when he said, "Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't after you."

M.W.Guzy is a retired St. Louis cop who currently works for the city Sheriff's Department. His column appears weekly in the Beacon. 

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