Farm Bureau policy shift could affect roads debate

Thursday, November 29, 2001

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- A possible major policy shift by a key special-interest group could strongly influence next year's debate in the General Assembly on increasing taxes for transportation.

A committee of the Missouri Farm Bureau recommended in October that the group support efforts to boost funding for the state Department of Transportation if certain conditions are met. Farm Bureau members will vote Monday on whether to adopt that policy.

Approval of the policy would mark an about-face for the conservative-leaning Farm Bureau, which helped defeat the transportation tax package pushed by Democratic Gov. Bob Holden in the Legislature this year.

However, during testimony before the Senate Transportation Committee on Wednesday, Farm Bureau director of public affairs Estil Fretwell said that even if the policy shift is endorsed, the organization's support of a tax plan is contingent on MoDOT and its independent governing commission improving their credibility with the public.

"Public confidence must be increased before taxes," Fretwell said.

The Farm Bureau has supported every major transportation tax increase submitted to a statewide vote, he said, including unsuccessful efforts in 1978 and 1982. The primary lesson learned from those defeats, Fretwell said, was the public must know details of how new tax revenue will be spent to win their approval.

Farm Bureau also backed MoDOT's 1992 15-year plan, which wasn't subject to a public vote. That plan promised a long list of road and bridge projects in exchange for a 6-cent-per-gallon hike in the state fuel tax, which the Legislature overwhelmingly approved.

However, the Highways and Transportation Commission in 1998 dropped the plan as the financial blueprint for road construction as financially unworkable. Because the plan favored rural areas, the decision put Farm Bureau at odds with state highway officials.

Fretwell said Farm Bureau's rural constituency must have assurances that future MoDOT promises will be kept.

State Sen. Danny Staples, D-Eminence, asked if providing a breakdown of rural and urban spending in any proposed transportation package would be useful in selling the plan to voters, who would be asked to approve any tax hike.

Fretwell said various interest groups would be unlikely to reach a consensus if there were an attempt to mandate a specific funding ratio.

If Farm Bureau changes its policy, the group will draft a transportation tax bill for a lawmaker to introduce in January, Fretwell said.

Fretwell didn't comment on how much or what type of taxes would be called for.

In testimony Tuesday, MoDOT director Henry Hungerbeeler offered plans on what projects could be done with $600 million or $1 billion a year in additional money. However, several committee members said such plans would be too expensive to win voter support and suggested a package costing less than $600 million but at least $200 million.

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