Highway funding measure certified for Nov. 2 vote

Wednesday, July 28, 2004

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Missourians will vote Nov. 2 on whether to limit the transfer of some highway funds to other state agencies after the secretary of state's office certified the measure for the ballot Tuesday.

The Committee to Improve Missouri's Roads and Bridges delivered petitions with almost 200,000 signatures to the secretary of state in April. The office verified nearly 156,000 -- more than needed to make the ballot.

The state Transportation Department receives barely 55 cents of every $1 it collects in state highway user fees and taxes. Part of the other money goes to city and county roads, but some also is transferred to the Missouri State Highway Patrol, the Department of Revenue and the Office of Administration.

The auditor's office voluntarily declined road funds for the state fiscal year that started July 1.

Politicians often point to voters soundly rejecting an August 2002 transportation tax proposal as evidence that Missourians don't believe their highway dollars are being used wisely. They say addressing the transfer is necessary before proposing any more tax increases.

"The reason any type of funding mechanism has not been successful is the fact that taxpayers do not trust the method by which the moneys are currently being used," said Gary Marble, president of Associated Industries of Missouri, among the business groups supporting the amendment. "That money needs to stay in highways."

The proposed constitutional amendment would phase out the transfer of money to some agencies over four years, providing an average increase of about $30 million a year to highway projects.

The proposal would require funding from motor fuel taxes and vehicle sales taxes and fees to be largely dedicated to state and local road construction and maintenance. Some funding still would go to the Highway Patrol, which enforces traffic laws, and the Revenue Department would get to keep 3 percent of what it collects to cover its costs.

Half of the highway user fees would go into a fund to repay state highway bonds, which supporters said would allow transportation officials to issue about $300 million a year in bonds for road projects.

If the amendment passes, legislators eventually would need to either cut the budgets of agencies that lost funding or find other sources to fill in the revenue they had received from road-related taxes.

The Missouri National Education Association opposes the proposed amendment for that reason, among others, noting a large chunk of state general revenues goes to education.

"We still see this fundamentally as an attempt on the part of certain people to get a tax increase for roads without actually having to say we're going for a tax increase," if not directly from voters then through general revenue at the expense of government aid to schools and social services, said Otto Fajen, a lobbyist for the teachers' union.

Marble, however, said the state has plenty of money to replace that lost revenue without jeopardizing funding for schools or other priorities.

"We have revenues in the state coffers if an agency finds it needs an additional two, three, four million dollars," he said.

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On the Net:

Secretary of State: http://www.sos.mo.gov

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