BY BILL EIGEL
Voters don’t think so. Amendment 7 (2014), which would have increased statewide sales tax to put more dollars into roadways and bridges, was decisively defeated by a 60%-40% margin. A different form of consumption tax, creating toll roads around the state, has been met with massive objections by the voters regardless of their residence being urban, suburban, or rural. Recent polling by Remington Research in 2015 suggests opposition to tolling is as high as 59%, an unheard of level of unity in today’s fractured political climate.
And who can blame the voters for their opposition? Right now, Missourians are sending more of their hard-earned dollars to Jefferson City than ever before in the history of the state. This year alone the General Assembly will spend a record $27.8 billion dollars of state revenue. In spite of that healthy spending level, our roadways and bridges fail to get the attention they need. As a result, there is no plan in place to rebuild our most critical highway, I-70, and our rural roadways continue to fall into further disrepair.
That’s why I introduced Senate Bill 457, which would have provided $2.7 billion in infrastructure spending over 10 years, putting families back to work without any tax increases or new toll roads.
Senate Bill 457 was about prioritization of our tax dollars, and would have set aside just 3% of our general revenues for 10 years to improve the roads and bridges that connect citizens to their homes, their jobs, and each other.
This money would address a variety of state needs. That includes $2 billion of state money that, combined with matching federal funds and grants, would be enough to construct an 8-lane divided highway all the way from Independence to Wentzville. Another $500 million would be set aside to rebuild the numbered and lettered routes connecting the secondary roads in the state.
The bill would also have addressed the size of the Missouri Department of Transportation, which is tasked to manage the 7th largest road network in the country in spite of Missouri being 21st in size and 19th in population. Specifically, it would restore some 7,000 miles of roadways in a category known as “Non-Federally Aided”, or NFA, miles. These are roadways that get so little traffic that the Federal Government will offer no matching funds to maintain them. To avoid the problem of not being able to maximize federal match funds, most states do not maintain these miles at the state level.
Missouri does business the wrong way here, and manages over 7,000 via Jefferson City. They could be restored to local areas at a reasonable rate that would both make the system more efficient and, according to Modot estimates, not incur an additional unfunded liability to local areas.
So is 3% of our general revenue budget too much to ask for Jefferson City budget hawks to set aside for one of the top priorities in the state?
Critics point to a low fuel tax in Missouri as an easy place to ask for more sacrifice from the taxpayer without having to make tough choices about the priorities in our budget. But with cars and trucks becoming more efficient each day, the fuel tax as the major mechanism for funding roads is becoming obsolete. In addition, many voters are asking themselves why the reality of a low tax rate on one item is justification to raise it? This at a time when Republicans, who believe in lower tax rates and less government burden, control super-majorities in the General Assembly and the Governor’s office
Again, is 3% of our budget too much to spend on something as important as our roads?
Other critics worry about this leading to cuts in other areas of our budget. But, even for those that don’t believe there is just 3% waste in our state government that should be identified by the general assembly, the expected growth rate for state revenues moving forward is 3.8%. This is well above the level of spending called for in SB 457. Thus, SB 457 wouldn’t cut other programs to support our roads; it would do a better job prioritizing future revenue growth to maintain a world-class road network.
But more importantly, perhaps SB 457 does what many politicians are afraid of and what voters have asked to see in recent election cycles; call for more accountability and prioritization in the way our elected leaders spending the people’s money without giving them the easy way out of just asking the people for more tax dollars.
No new taxes. No new toll roads. Just better roads and bridges and putting families back to work with the dollars you already send to Jefferson City.
Bill Eigel is a Republican state senator from St. Charles.