There’s bipartisan satisfaction among members in a legislative committee that the state Supreme Court has chosen not to consider a lawsuit. The high bench has denied a request to review a suit that would have blocked Proposition D, which includes a motor fuel tax increase, from going before voters.
Two members of the Joint Committee on Transportation Oversight, which met during last week’s special legislative session – Republican Representative Bill Reiboldt of Neosho and Democratic Representative Greg Razer – are happy with the high court’s decision.
Both lawmakers were also part of the 21st century Missouri Transportation System Task Force, a panel that held numerous hearings in 2017. The task force made several recommendations to the state Legislature in January, chief among them is an increase in fuel taxes for gasoline and diesel.
The Legislature followed up by passing the ballot measure that includes the motor fuel tax to help fund road improvements.
Reiboldt, who is retiring in January, also chairs the oversight committee as well as the House Transportation Committee. He thinks the motor fuel tax will be more warmly received among voters who soundly rejected a sales tax for roads several years ago.
“Sales tax is usually something that the local governments say, ‘This is ours, you guys stay out of it. You go get your funding somewhere else.’ So, for that and other reasons the sales tax did not make it,” says Reiboldt.
The 2014 sale tax proposal, which was sponsored by former Republican State Senator and current Lieutenant Governor Mike Kehoe of Jefferson City, would’ve hiked the state’s portion of the sales tax from 4.225% to 4.975%, and would’ve raised $5.4 billion over 10 years.
The current ballot measure would increase the motor fuel tax from 17 cents to 27 cents per gallon by boosting the tax annually by 2.5 cents over four years. Once fully in place, it would provide roughly $288 million annually in the State Road Fund for transportation needs as well as $123 million annually for local transportation projects. About 30% of the motor fuel tax is sent to cities and counties, with an even split of 15% distributed to each one.
Razer thinks it’s time to educate the public around the financing needed to adequately take care of Missouri roads. He thinks that increasing the motor fuel tax, which hasn’t been adjusted since 1996, is long overdue.
“Think about it if you didn’t get a pay raise since 1996,” says Razer. “You’d be patching the roof of the house as best you can and putting things together with baling wire. That’s what MoDOT (Missouri Department of Transportation) has been having to do for these last few years.”
Missouri has a lower fuel tax rate than any of its nine neighboring states except Oklahoma. Oklahoma maintains 12,257 miles of highway while Missouri manages 33,856 miles. Both states tax gasoline sales at 17-cents per gallon, although Oklahoma’s levy on diesel is three cents less than Missouri’s.
The state is also challenged to manage the 7th largest transportation system in the country while it ranks 46th in revenue per mile. The massive disparity has been attributed to a unique arrangement in which Missouri maintains a vast network of county highways, commonly referred to as the lettered roads, unlike most any other states.
The state Transportation Department (MoDOT) has pegged the increase in funding needed to maintain and provide infrastructure upgrades to the state’s roads at $825 million annually. Reiboldt says the $288 million the motor fuel tax would raise is enough money to shore up road maintenance needs, but far short of what’s needed to improve conditions on interstate highways.
“It’s not the silver bullet for the interstates,” says Reiboldt. “That’s an issue that’s going to have to be dealt with down the road. This is just basically to maintain our infrastructure as far as roads and bridges and highways.”
MoDOT estimates that the 10 cent increase in the motor fuel tax would cost the average driver $5 per month.
The parties against the ballot measure and who have filed the lawsuit weren’t targeting the motor fuel tax but instead objected to the proposal on procedural grounds. The measure was originally drawn up to establish a state tax exemption on prizes won in Olympic competition but was amended to include two additional provisions – one calling for a public vote on the motor fuel tax, and another to create an emergency road fund in which the Legislature can deposit state funds.
Conservative activist Ron Calzone and State Representative Mike Moon, R-Ash Grove, the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, contend that the purpose of the bill was expanded too broadly, noting its title had to be changed from “tax deduction” to “relating to state revenue” in order to include a tax increase for the motor fuel levy. They claim the move violates the state constitution, which requires all bills to pertain to a single subject.
A circuit court in Jefferson City and a state appeals court in Kansas City both dismissed the lawsuit before the Supreme Court declined to hear the case.
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