Consensus lacking for state road tax ballot initiative

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- State transportation leaders would like to ask voters to raise taxes next year. But so far, they can't agree what taxes to raise, what projects to fund and who should head up the effort.

The chairman of the House and Senate transportation committees each have proposed their own transportation tax packages with hopes of putting them on the August 2008 ballot. But both said Monday that prospects for legislative approval appear iffy and a better route may be an initiative petition by citizens.

An initiative, however, also poses a "daunting" challenge for next year, said Rodney Gray, an attorney and transportation lobbyist who headed the campaign for an unsuccessful transportation tax proposal in 2002.

So far, there have been only preliminary discussions about a ballot initiative, which likely would need to be crafted yet this year to conduct public opinion polling and gather petition signatures by the May 4 deadline, Gray said.

"I don't feel like there's a consensus yet," said Gray, one of the roughly 100 people who attended a transportation funding meeting sponsored Monday by the Missouri Transportation and Development Council.

Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Bill Stouffer, R-Napton, has proposed a 1-cent sales tax, generating $7.2 billion over 10 years, to rebuild Interstate 70 and Interstate 44 with four lanes in each direction, two each for big trucks and other vehicles.

House Transportation Committee Chairman Neal St. Onge, R-Ballwin, has proposed to raise $4.1 billion over six years through a one-half cent sales tax plus a variety of higher fuel taxes and vehicle license fees. His plan would rebuild Interstate 70 with separate truck and vehicle lanes in each direction while also directing more money to other roads and modes of transportation.

Separately, Sen. Matt Bartle, R-Lee's Summit, has proposed a constitutional amendment allowing the Missouri Department of Transportation to operate toll roads.

The two transportation committee chairmen plan to host a joint hearing July 31 in Jefferson City with testimony from an assistant federal transportation secretary and others in the road-building industry.

Republican Gov. Matt Blunt is opposed in general to tax increases. So, too, are many of the Republicans who control the Missouri legislature. And Missouri voters also have shown a general aversion to statewide tax increases.

Given that, Stouffer and St. Onge acknowledged it would be difficult to pass a transportation tax measure in the Legislature in 2008, which is an election year.

"Our job is to increase the awareness in the public, and if we're successful with that, then realistically the route is the initiative petition process," Stouffer said.

Transportation Department director Pete Rahn said several factors could combine to require additional state money within the next two or three years.

State money available for road construction will drop significantly by 2010, as the state repays bonds that are financing a current spike in road projects, Rahn said. Federal highway funding also could run short by 2009 unless Congress takes action, he said. Additionally, road construction costs continue to rise because of the prices for oil, asphalt and steel.

The transportation department hasn't endorsed any particular type of tax increase, Rahn said, but would welcome any additional money.

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