What's plan B?

Saturday, July 27, 2002

If Proposition B's proposal to raise both sales taxes and fuel taxes fails, lawmakers say they would likely try again

By Marc Powers ~ Southeast Missourian

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- As election day looms, the debate over Proposition B has focused on what would happen if the $483 million transportation tax package wins voter approval.

Supporters say the new revenue would help make Missouri's highways safer, replace crumbling bridges and give a much needed boost to a sagging state economy. Opponents claim it would raise sales taxes to the breaking point in some areas, put the burden of road funding on those least able to afford it and give politicians a pot of money they could easily raid for non-transportation purposes.

A question left largely unasked is what happens if voters reject Proposition B on Aug. 6?

Officials at the Missouri Department of Transportation say they would finish major projects that are already underway, but expansion of the highway system will come to a virtual standstill, with a larger share of the department's budget shifting to maintaining the existing system and paying off bonds used to spur construction in recent years.

"If voters vote against Proposition B, we will continue to do the best we can with what we've got," said Jeff Briggs, a MoDOT spokesman.

That Missouri's transportation system is in disrepair and woefully underfunded is a point on which there is nearly unanimous agreement. How to best fix the problem has always been hotly disputed.

As the General Assembly worked this spring to craft a tax package to put on the ballot, many lawmakers who opposed the plan said they feared voter rejection of the proposal would set back the effort to improve transportation funding by years.

Should Proposition B fail, the transportation issue will not disappear. However, whether there will be significant momentum in the legislature to try again in the 2003 remains to be seen.

"Getting something back to the voters quickly is pretty remote, according to some," said Republican state Rep. Lanie Black of Charleston, a Proposition B supporter.

Raising taxes

A plan several years in the making, Proposition B calls for raising the state fuel tax by 4 cents to 21 cents a gallon and adding a half-cent to the state sales tax for a total of 4.725 percent.

MoDOT would get $425 million of the new revenue, with $364 million earmarked for roads and bridges and $61 million for rail, ports, aviation and mass transit. Cities and counties would receive $52 million for local road projects and $6 million would go for ethanol and biodiesel programs.

State Sen. Wayne Goode, D-Normandy, predicts two potential outcomes should Proposition B be defeated. First, the legislature could decide it did its best and let the issue drop. Second, it could return with a more modest proposal that takes into account voters' reasons for rejecting Proposition B.

"I think exit polling and analysis would certainly be important if we try to come back with something else," said Goode, the senior Democrat on the Senate Transportation Committee.

One sore point for opponents is Proposition B's sales tax component. Missouri traditionally has relied on user fees to pay for transportation, but sales taxes generate more revenue. Goode said lawmakers could come back with a plan that keeps the emphasis on fuel taxes and license fees.

"It is a pretty proven way to do it," Goode said.

Toll road option

State Rep. Jim Seigfreid, D-Marshall, said he would likely revive a bill he has pushed in recent years to create a system of toll roads in Missouri.

"It is a truly user pays situation, though some people don't like it," Seigfreid said.

Seigfreid, a member of the House Transportation Committee, said lawmakers might view tolls roads as a more attractive alternative to taxes if Proposition B is defeated. Either way, he said the General Assembly can't afford to dawdle on the issue, though he said some lawmakers could be gun-shy from a failure at the ballot box.

"The roads are in bad shape and getting worse as time goes on," Seigfreid said. "It will cost us even more down the road."

Black, who also sits on the House transportation panel, said accountability provisions to ensure MoDOT spends its money wisely would likely be part of any future effort. Various accountability proposals were floated this year, but only a section giving MoDOT's inspector general more authority to root out waste made it into Proposition B.

"Some people think that if you don't have accountability prior to a tax increase, you are never going to get accountability," Black said.

Regardless of the outcome of Proposition B, Black said he will re-introduce a bill that would require the governor to select members of the State Highways and Transportation Commission, MoDOT's governing board, from a list of nominees chosen by legislative leaders. The commission has been blamed for the failure of MoDOT's 1992 construction plan, which was underfunded and overpromised, and for abusing its constitutional independence from most legislative oversight.

Not sharing the wealth

State Sen. Bill Foster, who voted against the measure this spring, said the concern driving negative voter sentiment in Southeast Missouri and other rural areas is allocation of funding.

"My opinion from day one has always been to make sure our fair share comes back to the Bootheel," said Foster, R-Poplar Bluff.

MoDOT's 1992 plan gave 60 percent of highway spending for rural-area projects, with the remainder going to St. Louis and Kansas City. The commission changed to a 50/50 distribution in 1998. That would continue under Proposition B, with most of the major projects being built in urban areas.

Foster said most of the roads are in rural Missouri so that is where most of the money should go. Foster has proposed a three-way funding split, with rural projects, urban projects and interstate highways, urban and rural, each getting one-third of available revenue.

Foster believes a rejection of Proposition B would convince the commission to revisit the distribution issue and force urban interests to make concessions for rural support in a future package.

"If Prop B passes, St. Louis and Kansas City will go away with smiles on their faces," Foster said. "If it does go down, we are in essence going to force them to negotiate, bring St. Louis and Kansas City back to the bargaining table and get a better plan."

mpowers@semissourian.com

(573) 635-4608

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