Prop A foe who inspires Tea Party carries a recent feud with WU
In the fight over the future of public transit in St. Louis, one local man has been an inspiration to local Tea Party activists and a thorn in the side of transit advocates and Washington University students and staff.
Jonathon Burns, 26, of Shrewsbury, Mo., has established himself as a rising star in the Tea Party movement while stoking the ire of a large number of liberal students, officials and transit advocates here with his outspoken opposition to interventionist government and tax increases.
Burns was one of several people who protested socialism with a mock gulag display on campus in November 2009. Burns, who was virtually unknown a year ago, has quickly become perhaps the most recognizable opponent of Proposition A—a proposed half-cent sales tax increase for Metro that has been popular among students. He is the spokesman of the opposition group Citizens for Better Transit.
In a flurry of newspaper submissions, blog posts and appearances at local Tea Party events, Burns cast Proposition A as an attempt to funnel money from the middle class to powerful political and business interests.
“I think Proposition A is an example of the hijacking of democracy,” Burns said in an interview with Student Life.
Burns also acknowledged his role in the gulag display, which the University chapter of Young Americans for Liberty (YAL) built one afternoon in November to warn people of what Burns said are the dangers of socialism and increased government control of the economy.
His views on Prop A and socialism have found relatively little support at the University. Rather, they have ruffled the feathers of community members and Proposition A supporters here, who have accused Burns of fear-mongering and distorting the facts.
But Burns and some members of the Tea Party movement deny that. If anything, they argue, Burns has been an inspiring champion of smaller government and lower taxes. “John is just a really courageous voice in that,” said Gina Loudon, a St. Louis Tea Party leader. “I would have never expected so much courage from someone that young.”
Burns has focused much of his criticism of Proposition A on the University’s U-Pass program, which allows full-time students and benefits-eligible faculty and staff to ride Metro for free. Burns has claimed that the $2.3 million the University pays Metro for the program is 80 percent less than what the school should be paying; while the University pays only $100 per U-Pass for 25,000 of them, passes for the disabled cost much more, he argues.
Chancellor Mark Wrighton and Metro officials said Burns’ allegation is baseless, as any school or business can sign up with Metro to receive discounts for bulk purchases of passes.
And Metro spokesman Charlie Bosworth and spokeswoman Dianne Williams explained that Metro calculates ridership based on the number of boardings, not the number of people with passes. Government-audited ridership figures from fiscal 2009 show that U-Pass users accounted for about 4.13 percent of Metro’s ridership, while the University’s payment equaled about 4.65 percent of Metro’s passenger revenue in fiscal 2009.
“They’re actually paying a little bit more than the average rider,” Bosworth said.
Wrighton also noted that while the University buys passes for all eligible community members, “only 75 percent actually request a U-Pass.”
The University did not comment on Burns himself. But one administration official said that the administration seeks to promote the proposition instead of fighting back against Burns. Officials’ private reactions have ranged from befuddlement that Burns is targeting Washington University to exasperation with his media attention and his criticisms of the U-Pass program.
“My personal frustration is that we have to waste time arguing with him about something like our U-Pass program, which really has nothing to do with the issue at hand,” said the official, who wished to remain anonymous for professional reasons.
Still, Loudon said this isn’t about Washington University. “This is about something that has been portrayed one way that is entirely another way,” she said.
Burns’ criticisms of Metro and the U-Pass reflect his broader concerns with government power. He believes in the power of ordinary people to serve as citizen journalists, exposing fraud and wrongdoing in the government by going undercover.
“As a journalist, that’s a very noble cause,” Burns said.