Hearnes - Special transport session needed

Thursday, August 22, 2002

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- A former Missouri governor says the state's current chief executive should call a lame-duck session of the General Assembly after the November elections to develop an acceptable transportation tax plan to submit to voters.

Warren E. Hearnes of Charleston, who served as governor from 1965 to 1973, said a special session dedicated to transportation in advance of the next regular session, which begins in January, would be the optimum opportunity to tackle the problem of Missouri's deteriorating roads.

"What other course do we have?" Hearnes said.

However, current Gov. Bob Holden and some lawmakers see little point in a special session following voters' nearly 4-to-1 rejection of Proposition B, a $483 million transportation tax package, on Aug. 6. A Department of Transportation spokesman said the department would support a special session but noted that decision is up to Holden.

Only one issue

Hearnes said that with only one issue on the table, lawmakers could focus their attention on crafting a proposal that addresses the concerns of Missourians who opposed the recent ballot measure.

Also, with mass legislative turnover coming in January as a result of term limits, Hearnes said the departing lawmakers -- lame ducks -- who no longer have to fear voter backlash would be more inclined to engage in bipartisan cooperation and to pursue proposals that were politically unpopular when they crafted the failed measure earlier this year.

"I've been through this before," Hearnes said.

In December 1970, a month before a new legislature was to convene, Hearnes called a lame-duck session to push through an income tax increase. That effort, which followed a failed attempt in the previous regular session, was successful.

Hearnes said Holden, a fellow Democrat, has few remaining options if the state's transportation funding problems are going to be addressed anytime soon.

"If he doesn't believe transportation is a need, then what I'm talking about is a waste of time," Hearnes said.

Holden spokeswoman Chris Kelly said the problem this year in passing a transportation tax wasn't with the legislature, which put Proposition B on the ballot with bipartisan support. Kelly said a special session would accomplish nothing.

"The governor, obviously, is very aware of the transportation needs of the state and wants to see something happen," Kelly said. "But that has to happen when voters are ready for it to happen."

State Sen. Jim Mathewson, D-Sedalia, has sponsored several major transportation bills in recent years. Past efforts have required substantial discussion and compromise among the myriad competing interests with a stake in transportation.

"I don't think putting a group of legislators and private businesses together this quickly after a defeat is going to come up with an answer," Mathewson said.

House Minority Floor Leader Catherine Hanaway, R-Warson Woods, questioned whether calling a special session, which would be an added expense for the cash-strapped state, on an issue voters just resoundingly rejected would be sending the right message.

"I think it flies in the face of what voters just told us," Hanaway said.

Hearnes' suggestions

Whenever lawmakers decide to revisit the transportation issue, Hearnes has a couple of suggestions.

First, he said lawmakers should stick to transportation-related revenue sources, such as fuel taxes, and abandon attempts to use sales tax money for road improvements. The sales tax component of Proposition B was cited by opponents as a reason for the measure's failure.

Second, Hearnes said any proposed tax should have a quick expiration date, perhaps even as short as a year. That would give MoDOT some money to prove it can be trusted, another issue for opponents, before asking voters to commit to a long-term tax.

With Proposition B's defeat, MoDOT officials plan to pursue the authority to build toll roads. Hearnes pushed a toll roads bill through the legislature in 1967, but it was later ruled unconstitutional.

Hearnes said MoDOT opposed tolls during his administration and is now wasting its time pushing the issue, which would require a voter-approved constitutional amendment. Such amendments have repeatedly failed in the past.

"MoDOT is not the best at putting its finger on the pulse of the people," Hearnes said. "I've always been a great believer in toll roads, but after seeing it get beat and beat and beat, you don't want to have another defeat."

mpowers@semissourian.com

(573) 635-4608

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