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Possible sales tax increase to improve Missouri transportation

November 27, 2001
By: Amanda Joyce
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - Just a few hours after chastising MoDOT director Henry Hungerbeeler for "blowing" the department's chances at an increase in funding, Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Morris Westfall, R-Halfway, said he was seriously considering a sales tax increase.

"The sales tax is a legitimate option," Westfall told reporters after the committee hearing on highway funding needs.

As to the size of a sales tax increase, Westfall said he was unsure, but said the $1 billion that Hungerbeeler discussed was too much.

The Senate Transportation Committee scheduled a two day hearing for Tuesday and Wednesday to hear testimony focusing on how to fund Missouri's transportation systems in the upcoming years.

After fielding questions from committee member Sen. Ronnie DePasco, D-Kansas City, about the recent hiring of a public relations director, Hungerbeeler began his presentation only to be interrupted by a frustrated Westfall.

Westfall pulled out a letter he wrote to Hungerbeeler on November 9. The letter outlined the information Westfall expected to be presented to the committee.

"I'm asking [in the letter] that you make projections as to what the public may expect in terms of improved roads and highways based on annual funds ranging from $200-600 million...now were you just ignoring that?" Westfall said.

Hungerbeeler's staff copied the additional documents, which Westfall said provided more of the detail he was interested in.

After the committee meeting ended Westfall told reporters that the recent hiring of public relations director Rich Hood could make it more difficult for his constituents to swallow a new tax package--even if it was to improve Missouri's ailing highways.

Hood's annual salary is $96,000.

Hungerbeeler stood by his decision during DePasco's questioning, however. He said the Transportation Department had been having communications difficulties for the past three years, and that he knew the hiring would be a politically sensitive issue.

"In an attempt to correct your public relations problem you may have created a bigger one," Westfall said during the director's testimony.

Sen. John Russell, R-Lebanon, said the committee had yet to reach a consensus on a solution to the funding and improving of Missouri's highways and bridges.

If the committee fails to come to a decision, the issue dies in committee.

"The question becomes how much will the voters approve?" Russell said.

"Many of the proposed projects are from the '92 plan. These projects are what the people were promised," Russell said.

For the last few years, rural lawmakers have complained about the department's decision to abandon a statewide highway construction plan that had been used to justify the state's last gasoline tax increase.

The department said that various finance changes made it impossible to fund all the proposed projects.

But Russell said that MoDOT needs to regain credibility by completing the projects it proposed in 1992.