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Backers of higher gas tax in Missouri hope to flip ‘no’ to ‘yes’

By DAVID A. LIEB
Associated Press

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — Wisconsin isn’t the only place where government officials have long wrestled with questions about how to pay for roads.

In Missouri, voters have a long track record on proposed tax hikes that’s best summarized by one word: No. Yet organizers of the “Yes on D” campaign to raise Missouri’s gas tax by 10 cents a gallon believe this may be the year when voters finally consent to an increase.

With only days to go before the election on Tuesday, there is no organized campaign urging people to vote “no” on Proposition D and not a penny dedicated to counteracting the nearly $5 million raised by supporters.

“I think there’s a majority of the people — and a large majority of the people — who feel there’s a funding gap” for Missouri’s roads and bridges, said Lt. Gov. Mike Kehoe, a Republican who’s been traveling the state in support of the proposed gas-tax increase.

The question is “just what fix is right?” Kehoe added.

Wisconsin lawmakers have similarly struggled with finding ways to bring in more money for the state’s transportation fund. Wisconsin’s gas tax — now at 32.9 cents a gallon — was last raised in 2006.

A debate over transportation spending delayed the adoption of the state’s budget by months last year. A group of lawmakers, including Republicans in the state Assembly, argued the Legislature should at least consider raising the gas tax for roads. Gov. Scott Walker and others, though, were adamantly opposed to any increase.

In Missouri, a majority of voters said “no” four years ago to a proposed three-quarters cent sales tax that would have raised an estimated $534 million annually for roads and bridges.

In 2002, voters resoundingly defeated a proposed half-cent sales tax and 4 cent fuel tax that would have raised an estimated $483 million annually for roads, bridges and other modes of transportation.

In fact, since voters approved a constitutional amendment in 1996 requiring all proposed tax increases over a certain amount to be put to a statewide vote, not a single general tax increase has passed.

Meanwhile, at least 30 other states have raised transportation taxes or fees over the past six years, according to an analysis by the Associated Press. That includes California, where voters will be deciding on Tuesday whether to repeal a law from 2017 that raised gas taxes and vehicle fees to generate about $5 billion annually for transportation.

Previous tax increases have faced trouble in Missouri from both the political right and left. Some critics have been opposed to giving more money to government and others are concerned about fairness questions, mainly about who would be taxed. The coalition behind this year’s measure includes Gov. Mike Parson, a Republican; state business and agricultural groups; local government and school associations;  the trucking industry;  unions and construction contractors.

“For the state of Missouri to move forward in the future, infrastructure has a critical role, and I think people are really starting to understand that,” Parson said.

The group that opposed the transportation initiative in 2014 no longer exists. It had cited concerns that the sale- tax hike would have burdened low-income people while requiring essentially nothing from cross-country truckers who cause some of the greatest wear on roads.

This year’s proposal is about highway users. It would raise the state’s 17-cent-a-gallon fuel tax in annual 2.5 cent increments, starting next July, until it reaches 27 cents a gallon in July 2022. The full tax hike would cost an estimated $5 a month for an average motorist who drives 12,000 to 15,000 miles a year, according to the SaferMo.com committee backing the initiative.

When fully in place, it’s projected to raise at least $288 million a year for the state road fund and $123 million for city and county roads. That would cover only a part of what the Missouri Department of Transportation says is a $745 million annual shortfall for state road and bridge.

Missouri’s gas tax hasn’t been changed since 1996 and is now the second lowest nationally behind only the oil-producing state of Alaska.

St. Louis Alderwoman Cara Spencer, a Democrat who was involved in the opposition campaign in 2014, is among those supporting this year’s proposed tax increase.

“Gasoline tax has some level of regressiveness to it, but you’re at least taxing the users, and most importantly those truckers that go through” the state, Spencer said.

Former state Sen. Joan Bray, a Democrat who also was part of the opposition campaign in 2014, said she remains opposed to this year’s measure, partly because none of the revenue raised would go to public transportation.

Bray voiced her opposition in a column published by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, but she said many other people are working on races for U.S. Senate and Congress or ballot measures to raise the minimum wage, legalize medical marijuana and revamp legislative ethics and redistricting rules.

“I think this time people are so stretched doing so many other campaigns that organizing over this one got very, very low priority,” Bray said. She added: “I’m just hoping that it will lose again.”

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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