McCaskill, Blunt call for MoDOT reforms

Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Editor's note: This is the second in a six-part weekly series examining key issues in the Missouri governor's race.

By Marc Powers ~ Southeast Missourian

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Reform of the leadership structure of the Missouri Department of Transportation and improved accountability over the use of existing road revenue will be needed before voters can be asked to consider higher taxes for transportation, the two major party candidates for governor say.

As a key first step, State Auditor Claire McCaskill, a Democrat, and Secretary of State Matt Blunt, a Republican, both support voter ratification of Amendment 3 on Nov. 2, the same day Missourians will pick their next governor.

Amendment 3 would eventually provide an estimated $130 million a year for transportation by redirecting proceeds from motor vehicle sales taxes that currently support the general state budget. The proposal would restrict the so-called diversion of highway user fees to other state agencies, annually adding to transportation another $30 million in existing state money.

MoDOT officials have long maintained the agency needs more than $1 billion a year in new revenue to provide the improvements Missourians demand. Blunt says the department will first have to show it can be trusted.

"I think it premature to have that discussion until we have made some changes and proven we wisely spend transportation funds," Blunt said. "Then, and only then, can we have a revenue discussion."

Mistrust of MoDOT was widely cited in the overwhelming ballot-box defeat of a nearly $500 million transportation tax package in 2002. McCaskill also says it's too soon to broach the subject of new taxes.

"Ultimately, that's a discussion for voters to have," McCaskill said. "Right now, they are not going to give MoDOT more money, and I don't think they should."

In the near term, McCaskill endorses selling bonds to finance additional construction. The bulk of the funds raised by Amendment 3 would be dedicated for that purpose.

As auditor, McCaskill has issued numerous reports highlighting what she sees as wasteful spending at MoDOT. She pledges to institute the recommendations of those audits as governor.

Among her suggestions is placing tighter controls on the purchase of land for future construction projects to ensure MoDOT only buys the property it needs.

"We put out in our audit that they didn't always know what they owned," McCaskill said.

Blunt also endorses more oversight on how MoDOT expends public funds.

Highway commissioners

Although MoDOT is governed by the independent, six-member State Highways and Transportation Commission, Blunt says that as governor he would assume personal responsibility for improving the system.

To further that end, Blunt proposes making MoDOT's director a gubernatorial appointee who reports to the governor. The director currently is hired by the commission and serves at its pleasure.

Outgoing Gov. Bob Holden, a Democrat, floated similar proposals in recent years, but the Republican-led legislature took no action. While Holden's plan called for reducing the commission to a mere advisory body, Blunt says the commission should retain its independence to set construction priorities free from executive and legislative meddling.

"I do believe we should continue to allow the commission to determine what projects are funded," Blunt said. "It is important to insulate them from the political process."

Blunt also proposes expanding the commission by two members -- one representing air travel and mass transit, one focusing on freight and river transit issues.

McCaskill also supports having MoDOT's director appointed by the governor.

Her only difference with Blunt on reorganizing MoDOT's management structure, she says, is that she opposes adding new commissioners.

"I'm not a really big fan of making government bigger," McCaskill said. "I believe in smaller government."

Next week: Civil litigation reform.

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