Altering highway fee diversion goes slowly

Sunday, November 23, 2003

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- With highway user fees generating nearly $1.2 billion a year, Department of Transportation director Henry Hungerbeeler says motorists -- who on average pay $300 a year each in such fees -- often question why the agency claims it lacks the finances to do more to improve state roads.

What taxpaying motorists don't understand is that only 63 percent of that money makes it to MoDOT. When that reality is explained, Hungerbeeler told a legislative committee last week, the reaction isn't positive.

"It damages their confidence in state government," Hungerbeeler said.

That a sizable chunk of fuel taxes, license fees and vehicle sales tax revenue takes a turn off the exit ramp is neither the fault of MoDOT nor the result of wasteful spending by the legislature. In fact, most of that money is specifically earmarked for other purposes by the Missouri Constitution.

In addition to MoDOT's share, an additional 21.4 percent of the total user-fee pie goes to cities and counties for local road projects under the constitution.

The remainder -- almost $197 million for the current fiscal year -- goes to state agencies other than MoDOT. That is the portion commonly referred to as the "diverted" funds.

During last year's election campaigns, ending the diversion was a stock promise by Republican candidates for the House of Representatives. But after the legislative session began in January, the issue was scarcely debated.

State Rep. Larry Crawford, R-California, said the effort faltered not for lack of desire to act but because of the state's continuing budget difficulties.

"The problem I had last year is I had to find a way to get that money to transportation and backfill money to departments that got some of those funds," said Crawford, who chairs the House Transportation and Motor Vehicles Committee.

The biggest beneficiaries of the diversion -- the Missouri State Highway Patrol and Department of Revenue -- together account for 98 percent of the total, and under the constitution are entitled to a share of the money. To wean those agencies would require a voter-approved change to the constitution.

But legislative support for taking road funds away from the highway patrol, which by itself gets 68.3 percent of the diversion, has never been strong. The proposed amendment Crawford sponsored this year would have left the patrol's share intact.

The constitution says the patrol is to get road funds for "enforcing any state motor vehicle laws or traffic regulations." However, that revenue source is also used for crime labs, the DARE program and other patrol initiatives that seemingly fall outside the constitutional authorization.

Crawford acknowledged that a tighter constitutional construction could be in order when determining the amount of highway user fees the patrol should get. But that would still leave lawmakers with the task of finding new money to maintain those important functions.

Although some lawmakers say a more serious effort on the diversion issue will be made in the upcoming legislative session, the process of shifting more highway user-fee revenue to MoDOT could take years.

State Rep. Lanie Black, R-Charleston, said that given the state's tight revenue, the best course might be to slowly replace road funds with general revenue.

"You can't just reach a hand into the basket, pull the money out from wherever it is and put it into highway construction," said Black, a member of the transportation committee.

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