Another tax diverted to other uses

Saturday, December 28, 2002

It seems Missouri voters aren't being given much of an opportunity to regain trust in state government's use of tax dollars.

It isn't just the slashing of social programs and higher education budgets in recent months, although both of those have been disheartening to many Missourians. But such cuts are to be expected during a recession.

The latest trend is abandoning promises and using funds in ways for which they weren't originally intended. Secretary of State Matt Blunt, who oversees Missouri's public library system, was in town last week to air his complaints on how the Missouri Legislature's decisions have affected those institutions.

Consider some of the issues leading up to this one. The Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission decided six years into a 15-year plan that the plan wasn't working and abandoned it. That left projects in some communities high and dry. But even though the plan was abandoned, the 6-cent fuel tax increase adopted in 1992 remained.

And then Missourians learned fuel-tax revenue was being diverted away from highway projects. A good-sized chunk of the money goes to other state departments.

There's more.

The $4.5 billion settlement with Big Tobacco over health-care expenses incurred by the state due to smoking was supposed to go for medical programs and smoking cessation. Instead, the payments have been used to plug holes in Missouri's poorly planned budget.

And now Blunt brings our attention to another shell game.

Senate Bill 724, passed in 1998, earmarks a portion of the state income tax from professional athletes and entertainers who work in Missouri but don't live here.

The law is clear: 10 percent of taxes collected on these folks are to go for library materials, including books, audiotapes, books on tape, CDs, videos and computer software.

Nobody would dispute that just about any public library in Missouri, including the one in Cape Girardeau and the two in Jackson, would be improved with more materials. Cape Girardeau library director Betty Martin said her patrons sometimes have to wait longer than they would like because there aren't enough copies of an item available. She's being forced to consider cutting back on workers so she can get needed materials.

Trouble is, the legislature hasn't appropriated the full amount of the tax to libraries. The math is simple enough: The state collected $22 million on non-resident athletes and entertainers annual. That means $2.2 million should go to libraries.

Cape Girardeau's public library was slated to receive about $30,000 over the last three years and got only $14,000. The Riverside Regional Library system was due about $47,000 but got $26,000. And the city library in Jackson was due $12,000 and got a measly $1,000.

Local legislators have vowed to explore the issue in the upcoming session. It is up to Missouri taxpayers to make sure they do. It would be one small step toward truth in government.

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