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Lawmakers achieve compromise on funding package
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- After days of intense negotiation, lawmakers on Thursday reached a tentative agreement on a $511 million funding package for transportation that would go before voters this August.
A majority of negotiators from the House and Senate agreed to sign onto a proposal that would increase Missouri's gas tax from 17 cents to 21 cents -- a 24 percent increase -- and boost the state's 4.225 percent sales tax by one-half cent.
The Senate would be first to debate the compromise bill, then it would go to the House. The legislative session ends at 6 p.m. today.
"I think we have a task ahead of us, but I think we have a good package and it will be good for the state of Missouri and good for the people of Missouri," said Rep. Don Koller, D-Summersville, the bill's House sponsor. "It was well worth the work that we did."
Boosting transportation funding has been an elusive goal for years in the Legislature. Some lawmakers are still stinging from the financial failure of a 1992 fuel tax increase for roads that didn't account for project growth or inflation.
Sales tax hike
Under this year's plan, the half-cent sales tax increase would bring in a projected $297 million annually. The 4 cent increase in the gas tax would raise an estimated $168 million.
Sen. Morris Westfall, the bill's Senate sponsor, said he believes voters can be convinced to support the package, if lawmakers do first.
"I think we have a chance at the polls," said Westfall, R-Halfway.
But "we know there's some resistance out there to any tax increase."
Stripped from the bill was a provision in which the proceeds from the half-cent sales tax would be gradually directed to transportation -- instead of the general revenue pot -- beginning in July 2005 and concluding in 2010.
That provision had been supported by Sen. David Klindt, who said he would not sign off on the compromise bill. Klindt said that provision would have meant that an additional $195 million a year for the transportation department by the final year of the phase-in.
"It's very easy that voters could be mislead that the money is not going to fixing roads," said Klindt, R-Bethany. "We really haven't stopped the diversion to other areas, that's the real concern to me."
One historic sore point has been the 1992 Legislature's diversion of some fuel tax money to areas other than roads, such as the Highway Patrol. That agency now receives about $118 million a year from road funds and the bill would lift the agency's funding cap.
Under the bill, other modes of transportation -- light rail, mass transit, airports and river ports -- would receive an estimated $63 million. The legislation also provides $9 million for ethanol and biodiesel programs.
The bill allows the state Highways and Transportation Commission to appoint an inspector general, a provision that was significant because of lawmakers' distrust of the commission since it abandoned the 1992 road plan four years ago.
The inspector general would be required to submit an annual report to a legislative committee.
"It still gives the flexibility and responsibility to the commission, but you still have the inspector general making it's report to the oversight committee," Westfall said.
Also on Thursday, the Legislature gave final approval to a bill that would make permanent a 6-cent gas tax passed by lawmakers in 1992. That tax was due to expire in 2008.
The legislation also extends the state's 9-cent a gallon aviation tax. The bill, backed by Westfall, also requires billboards to be 1,000 feet apart, up from the current 500 feet. It raises billboard inspection fees from $28 to $50 this year. The fees would increase to $75 next year and $100 by 2004.
Transportation bill is SB915 (Westfall); Gas tax bill is HB1196 (Westfall).
On the Net:
Missouri Legislature: http://www.moga.state.mo.us