Holden pushes billion-dollar tax increase with no reforms

With the growing diversion of highway funds, reneging on promised road improvements and reallocating of funds after a tax increase is in place, it would be hard to imagine a worse formula for disaster than the one state government is continuing to follow. -- Charles Kruse, president of the Missouri Farm Bureau Federation

As unremarkable press releases go, this was an event. Or rather, an Event.

"Transportation Funding Derailed by Changed Priorities" reads last week's headline over the Farm Bureau piece. Some background: For months beginning last summer, Farm Bureau leaders were key to a coalition of groups working on a transportation funding plan. In fact, most of the meetings at which significant progress was occurring were held at the Farm Bureau offices in Jefferson City. Petitions were filed last month with the secretary of state's office to begin taking the matter to the voters. All this fell apart last week as major state organizations representing urban and rural interests decided not to pursue the initiative approach. This year, then, it'll be action on a transportation bill in the House and Senate, or nothing.

The governor who last year said transportation was his be-all and end-all has, this year, fallen mute on the subject. The GOP-controlled Senate acted first this winter, moving a $475 million funding package out of committee early on. The House hasn't acted on its much larger package.

The issue that blew up the coalition that had been meeting for months, trying to take an initiative straight to voters, was the diversion of your fuel-tax money away from transportation and into other departments of state government. This diversion, which would have been ended under the Farm Bureau-backed coalition initiative, is growing each year and has reached $150 million. It is axiomatic, of course, that the more fuel taxes diverted elsewhere, the less there is for highway maintenance and construction.

The deal blew up for one reason, grossly underreported by our state's news media: Gov. Bob Holden's fierce opposition to ending that diversion. That is, Holden insists on continuing to spend the fuel-tax money elsewhere. Holden is also committed to a 50-cents-a-pack, $300 million tax increase on tobacco, which he wants voted on this fall as well.

So we have two visions fighting for the minds of Missourians. On one side we have a governor and House leadership, both publicly backing far more than a billion dollars in higher taxes on Missourians with no real budgetary reforms -- just more money for the Holden spending machine.

On the other side, we have groups such as the Farm Bureau and the Missouri Chamber of Commerce, who for nearly a year have been showing their good faith in working on a transportation funding package their members can support. These folks are committed to ending the diversion of your fuel-tax money to other departments of state government. For them, as for many Missourians, this one is a deal-breaker.

A confrontation between the two has been raging behind the scenes, and the public rupture has now arrived. The gauntlet is thrown down. We lawmakers will adjourn and go home on May 17. We should know within seven or eight weeks whether needed action will move Missouri forward on transportation, or whether Bob Holden-led obstructionism stops us in our tracks yet again.

Peter Kinder is assistant to the chairman of Rust Communications and president pro tem of the Missouri Senate.