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Missouri Tax Hike Splits Transportation Advocates

Missourians will decide Tuesday whether to raise the state's sales tax to boost transportation funding.

Across all states, about 45 percent of transportation spending went to repairs between 2009 and 2011, and 55 percent funded new roads.
It took business groups nearly six years to come up with a viable, long-term option for Missouri to increase its road funding. But now that the idea is going to Missouri voters Aug. 5, it faces opposition from an unlikely source: public transit advocates.

The issue is over how the money would be raised and how it would be spent.

The new funds would come from a statewide sales tax hike of three-quarters of a cent, which would last for a decade. The measure, if approved by the voters, is expected to boost state transportation funding by $480 million a year, on top of the roughly $600 million the state spends now. The tax increase would also generate another $54 million in transportation money for local governments.

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Jewell Patek, campaign manager for Missourians for Safe Transportation and New Jobs, a coalition backing the measure, said the new money would finally give the state a reliable way to improve its infrastructure, after a decade of using stopgap measures. "There are very few new roads and bridges," he said. "From a roads and bridges perspective, it's really about fixing and maintaining our current infrastructure."

Missouri, he said, has the seventh-largest road network in the country but its funding for that network ranks 45th.

Even though Patek's group has raised $1.8 million in support of the measure, far eclipsing any of its opponents, it faces an uphill battle.

Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat opposes the measure. “The burden of this $6.1 billion sales tax increase would fall disproportionately on Missouri’s working families and seniors by increasing the cost of everyday necessities like diapers and over-the-counter medication, while giving the heaviest users of our roads a free pass,” he said.

To diminish the chances of it passing, he placed the question before voters during the August primary rather than the November general election. Proponents have had little more than two months to make their case. Plus, primary voters could be less likely to support a tax increase than the general electorate. Two other measures on the ballot next week -- one on guns and one on a "right to farm" agriculture measure -- could attract antitax conservatives to the polls, who would look on the sales tax hike skeptically.

Transit advocates are also working against the measure. Thomas Shrout Jr., the treasurer for Missourians for Better Transportation Solutions, said, "Using the sales tax to fund highways is bad public policy." He noted that the ballot measure would prohibit the state from raising fuel taxes or collecting new tolls for the next 10 years, when the higher sales tax is in effect.

That arrangement would let truck drivers who cross through the state pay nothing to maintain the roads they use, while Missourians would pay extra no matter how much or how little they use the roads, Shrout said. He also criticized the mix of projects that would be funded under the proposal, because 93 percent of the money would be for roads, not transit or improvements that would make neighborhoods more walkable.

Jeanette Mott Oxford, the executive director for the Missouri Association for Social Welfare, added that raising the sales tax would disproportionately hurt poorer residents of the state. For example, she said, one-fifth of Missourians who make less than $17,000 a year spend the highest percentage of their income -- about 5.9 percent -- on sales and excise taxes, more than any other group. "Those families have no discretionary income," she said. "But if they go to buy a pair of socks, if they go to buy furniture, if they go to buy school supplies for their kid, if they go to buy laundry detergent, they're paying an increase in sales tax."

Patek of Missourians for Safe Transportation and New Jobs said a sales tax hike, unlike a gas tax hike, would ensure the state received adequate funding in the future. "The gas tax is precisely why we're in this position in the first place," he said, "Vehicles in Missouri and across the nation are becoming more efficient. As our transportation infrastructure needs increase, our revenues to fund them decrease. The gas tax is never going to compensate for more fuel efficient vehicles. It's never going to close that gap."

Missouri last passed an increase in its gas tax in 1992. The per-gallon taxes don't keep up with inflation, unless they are regularly adjusted, but sales taxes do because they are tied to the price of goods.

If the measure passes, it would also be the first statewide tax increase for transportation since 1992. Voters approved a change in 2004 to dedicate more money from gas taxes and vehicle fees to transportation, and to issue bonds using that new revenue. The federal stimulus package also boosted transportation spending in the state.

Dan is Governing’s transportation and infrastructure reporter.
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