A lawsuit claims a ballot measure set to go before Missouri voters in November is unconstitutional and improperly uses taxpayer money.
Conservative activist Ron Calzone and Republican state Representative Mike Moon of Ash Grove are trying to block the vote to raise the state’s motor fuel tax.
Arguments in the case were heard by Judge Robert Schollmeyer in Cole County Circuit Court in Jefferson City Tuesday.
Lawmakers this year attached the motor fuel tax vote to a completely different bill that creates an income tax deduction on awards Olympic athletes win.
Calzone and Moon contend the proposal is unconstitutional because it fails to conform to a state requirement that limits each bill to a single subject. They claim the motor fuel tax amendment changes the original bill’s purpose.
Calzone says the state Supreme Court has interpreted the Constitution to protect citizens from having to make choices such as those required in the bill.
“This gives the people multiple subjects, some of which some of the people might like, and some of the subjects they might not like,” said Calzone. “And so, the people are forced to make a decision whether to accept something that they don’t like in order to get something that they do like.”
The bill as passed and certified by the secretary of state will ask voters to cast a ballot on three separate provisions, all at once on the same ballot measure.
They’ll be asked if they want to increase the motor fuel tax, exempt Olympic (as well as Special Olympic, Paralympic) prizes from state taxes, and establish the Emergency State Freight Bottleneck Fund?
The Bottleneck Fund would create a dedicated fund for certain road projects in order to reduce traffic bottlenecks that affect freight.
A single yes vote would be a vote in favor of all three provisions in the bill. Together they are known as Proposition D.
Lawmakers folded the motor fuel tax and the Bottleneck Fund into the Olympic award tax break proposal on the final day of the state legislative session May 18th.
The lawsuit references a 1994 Missouri Supreme Court decision officially titled Hammerschmidt v. Boone County, which found a violation of the constitutional rule against introduction or passage of bills containing more than a single subject.
The defendant in the lawsuit is Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft who is represented by Assistant Attorney General Jason K. Lewis. Intervening in the case on the same side is a group called SaferMO, which was created to promote Proposition D. SaferMO represents stakeholder such as contractors who would work on road project the motor fuel tax would finance.
Jefferson City Attorney Chuck Hatfield, who is representing SaferMO, contends the ballot measure will pass legal muster. He thinks the courts will back up the legislature’s intent.
“The constitution gives them a great deal of latitude to decide how they’re going to pass legislation,” said Hatfield. “It might not be the way you and I would do it. It’s a messy process. But I don’t think that this particular bill ran afoul of any of the guideposts that the constitution sets.”
SaferMo and the attorney general’s office further contend that the requirement for each legislative bill to conform to a single subject doesn’t apply to referendums such as Proposition D that go before voters.
Hatfield says there’s no precedent for such a requirement although he does admit there is a possible reading of the constitution that could limit a referendum to one subject. Still, he thinks the courts will let the legislature’s work move forward.
Another argument being made in the lawsuit is that the plaintiffs, Calzone and Representative Moon, have no standing to bring the case because they haven’t been impacted by the ballot measure. SaferMO and the attorney general’s office say they could only file the complaint after the ballot measure was passed and they’d been subject to the higher motor fuel tax.
Calzone says this argument is not accurate because the state estimates it’ll cost $400,000 in taxpayer money to place the measure of the ballot.
“They’ve got to publish the full measure in every county a number of times, in the newspapers of every county a number of times,” said Calzone. “And that’s expensive to do.”
Hatfield with SaferMO argues that the expense required for a ballot measure is an operational cost that is already assigned once the proposal passes.
“There’s already an appropriation to have a vote,” Hatfield said. “We’re going to have an election in November no matter what, and there’s going to be money spent to publish the various provisions. That was our position. It’s not really going to change that much.”
If voters passed the ballot measure, its main provision would increase the motor fuel tax by two and one-half cents for four straight years beginning July 1, 2019. The gas tax, which hasn’t been touched since the 1990’s would rise from 17 cent’s per gallon to 27 cents.
The total amount of money generated by the motor fuel tax hike is estimated to be $293 million per year once the increase is fully implemented in 2022.
The lion’s share of the money would be used to improve and build new roads.