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Republicans seek to abolish highway commission

January 18, 2000
By: Dan Shaw
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - In what Democrats are calling election-year politics, House Republicans want to replace the state highway commission with a Secretary of Transportation who would answer to the governor.

Republicans say they hope to bring accountability to a department that bears much of the responsibility for the poor condition of Missouri highways.

The Department of Transportation is doing a poor job, said Rep. Delbert Scott, R-Lowry City.

"When you consider that there are bills passed in 1987, but that won't be started for another three years, then it's time to think about how we can fix this problem," said Scott, who is sponsoring the joint resolution to amend the constitution.

The department is currently headed by the six-member State Highway and Transportation Commission, which is appointed by the governor and approved by the Senate. The membership is evenly divided between the two major political parties.

Democrats voiced concern that this proposal will bring back political considerations into a department with a poor track record in such areas.

Making the new position accountable to the governor, some say, risks having it filled by someone vulnerable to the governor's partisan agenda.

"I think the money would go to populous areas where the votes are," said the chairman of the House Transportation Committee, Rep. Don Koller, D-Summersville. "We need to keep politics out of transportation."

Koller expressed surprise at the initiative's support among Republicans, saying it is more common to see Republicans trying to de-politicize institutions.

"Its an election year ploy," he said. "It's not the tradition of the Republican Party to try to put politics back in."

Scott disagrees, saying, "For anyone to say this system is functioning properly is to be totally blind to what is occurring. Our proposal will bring what this department most desperately needs- accountability."

Democrats admitted the commission deserves some criticism, but advocated fixing the existing system instead of abolishing it.

"Everyone knows highways are deteriorating, but we are $14 billion shy of where we need to be," said Senate Transportation Committee Chair Danny Staples, D-Eminence.

Staples said that the Department of Transportation's coffers must be replenished. Possible solutions include increasing the statewide fuel tax or creating toll roads.

S. Lee Kling, Chair of the Highway and Safety Commission, said the department is addressing its problems by re-priortizing.

He said, "I believe what we are trying to do is ask ourselves what are the needs? What can we do with the present resources? What is the financial plan?"