Prop B fails; supporters blame economy

Wednesday, August 7, 2002

Despite a $3.5 million campaign and a generally acknowledged need for better roads, a proposal to raise Missouri's fuel and sales taxes for transportation failed badly in Tuesday's election.

Proposition B was failing by nearly a 3-to-1 margin with more than half of all precincts reporting results statewide. The "no" chorus was strong in almost every county.

Jennie Noel of Jackson, Mo., joined that chorus.

"No more taxes," she said. "If they had taken some of the money they had and made some progress, maybe you could do it. But people in a place like Jackson don't even exist. You could tell them, 'I'm from Jackson,' and they'd say 'Where's that?'"

Supporters, acknowledging the loss, blamed the economy, public skepticism of tax increases and a distrust of the Missouri Department of Transportation.

"I don't think it's because Missourians didn't recognize the transportation problems. I think they do," said Rodney Gray, director of the Time for Missouri Committee, which coordinated the campaign. "I think the economy and issues that have plagued MoDOT led to the downfall in this election."

Gov. Bob Holden, another supporter of the transportation tax, blamed an uncertain economy for the proposal's poor showing at the polls.

"We're in an environment now where people are very concerned about their own pocketbooks," Holden said in a telephone interview from St. Louis.

Proposition B would have raised the state sales tax one-half cent to 4.725 cents on a dollar -- be it spent on a car, clothes or household goods. It also would have raised the motor fuel tax 4 cents to a total of 21 cents a gallon.

Had it passed, the transportation package would have been Missouri's largest-ever tax increase and would have marked the first time that roads had been funded with something other than a user fee, such as a gas tax or license fee.

The taxes were estimated to raise $483 million annually by the state auditor's office. Researchers for the state Legislature, which referred the measure to the ballot, put the tax bill at $511 million a year.

Most of the new money would have gone to state and local roads and bridges. But other modes of transportation also would have gotten a share, including bus systems, airports, river ports and light rail. A small percentage would have gone toward ethanol and biodiesel fuel incentives.

The failure of Proposition B could set the state's road system back by several decades, said transportation department director Henry Hungerbeeler.

"Mathematically, it will take us 35 years now to do what we could have done in 10 years if Proposition B had passed," Hungerbeeler said from MoDOT headquarters in Jefferson City. "I'm certainly hoping it doesn't take 35 years to regain their trust in our capabilities."

The Time for Missouri Committee had raised about $3.5 million, according to campaign finance reports filed more than a week before the election, with most of the money coming from construction and city business groups. Their ads focused on the safety and economic benefits of a better transportation system.

Opponents, calling themselves No on B, ran a slim-budget campaign, criticizing the sales tax as burdensome to the poor and questioning the state's ability to follow through on its road plans.

"I'm really glad that there obviously are a significant number of voters that looked through the advertising campaign -- which was huge and only on one side -- to look at both sides of the issue and use good sense and say, 'We can do better than this,'" said state Sen. Larry Rohrbach, R-California, co-chairman of the No on B group.

In the Legislature this spring, Rohrbach was in the minority in opposing the transportation proposal, which was referred to the ballot with bipartisan support. In 2001, a similarly-sized transportation tax had died in the Republican-controlled Senate without coming to a vote.

The election on Proposition B was influenced by events of the past decade.

In 1992, then-Gov. John Ashcroft backed a 6-cent motor fuel tax estimated to raise $190 million annually when fully phased in. The Legislature passed the tax -- without referring it to voters -- after the transportation department pledged a massive 15-year road-building plan.

The next year, the Legislature passed what was the state's largest tax increase -- a $310 million income tax increase for public schools backed by then-Gov. Mel Carnahan. Again, the measure was not referred to the statewide ballot.

The move helped propel to passage a 1996 constitutional amendment requiring a statewide vote on any tax increase of more than $50 million -- a threshold adjusted annually for the growth in Missouri's personal income.

In 1998, the state Highways and Transportation Commission abandoned the road-building blueprint adopted in 1992, saying it was $1 billion short annually of reality.

Meanwhile, Missouri's transportation system continued to deteriorate. Recent reports by the national Road Information Program ranked Missouri's roads the third worst and its bridges the second worst in the United States.

Heading into Tuesday's election, Missouri's fuel tax ranked 44th nationally; a 4-cent increase would make it 31st. The state's sales tax ranked 35th nationally and would be 33rd with a one-half cent increase.

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