Panel endorses sales tax increase to fund road plan

Tuesday, April 23, 2002

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Fearing that rising fuel prices could doom a proposed fuel tax increase at the polls, the House Transportation Committee chairman is proposing to rely solely on the state sales tax to boost transportation funding.

Legislation endorsed Monday by the committee would mark a significant shift in state policy, which thus far has funded highways through user fees such as fuel taxes and vehicle licenses.

A bill now heading to the House floor would raise about $620 million annually by adding a penny to the state's 4.225 percent sales tax.

Most of that new money would go to state highways and bridges. But $20 million annually would go to other transportation modes, and one-fourth of the total -- an estimated $155 million -- would go to the Missouri State Highway Patrol.

The proposed sales tax increase would go before voters later this year and become effective Jan. 1.

Committee chairman Don Koller previously had backed a mixture of sales and fuel tax increases to boost transportation spending.

But Koller said surveys showed greater support among voters for a transportation sales tax than a fuel tax. Also, he said a recent rise in fuel prices and war in the oil-rich Middle East could make voters reluctant to approve higher fuel taxes.

A gallon of regular unleaded gasoline cost an average of $1.41 nationwide Monday, up from about $1.14 a gallon at the start of February, according to the AAA.

"I'm really not too much in favor of a fuel tax right at this point," said Koller, D-Summersville.

Koller attached the sales tax increase to a Senate-passed bill that would impose new fees on billboard owners and extend indefinitely a 6-cent fuel tax that is scheduled to expire in 2008.

A separate bill, given initial Senate approval last week, would raise the state fuel tax by an additional 6 cents, to a total 23 cents a gallon, and impose a three-eighths percent sales tax. That plan would generate nearly $500 million annually.

Sen. Morris Westfall, who sponsored both Senate bills, said he would prefer to send his $500 million plan to voters, not Koller's $620 million plan.

Westfall, R-Halfway, said he was concerned about raising the sales tax a full cent.

"That is a major shift in state policy," said Westfall, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee.

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