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MoDOT shifts accountability call to legislature, looks at fuel tax funds

September 24, 2002
By: Amy Menefee
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - Following voters' resounding defeat of a tax hike for highways, Missouri's Transportation Department suggests taking money from local governments and other state agencies to solve its budget dilemma.

Shifting the call for "accountability" to the state legislature, transportation director Henry Hungerbeeler says the Transportation Commission "may consider going to the legislature and saying, 'Give us the whole 6 cents.'" According to MoDOT figures, about $142 million out of $230 million in the 6-cent fuel tax revenue went to agencies other than MoDOT in 2001.

"We need to resurrect measures to stop the diversion of highway user fees to non-highway purposes," Hungerbeeler said. "It's not the department's fault. This money is appropriated by the General Assembly to places other than MoDOT."

Hungerbeeler distanced himself from last August's transportation tax package that was overwhelmingly rejected by Missouri voters.

"MoDOT has never asked for a tax increase," Hungerbeeler said. He said MoDOT just needs money, and that has to come from "somewhere in state government."

"Those are tough choices that our elected representatives have to make," Hungerbeeler said. "Do they want to continue to send money that people think is going to highways to other agencies, or do they want to send it to MoDOT to build roads with?"

A bill passed earlier this year imposes some restrictions on diverting any new funds to other agencies, particularly the Highway Patrol.

But any effort to grab all the fuel taxes for state highways will face stiff opposition.

"Any discussion of taking money from us from the Highway Fund would go against the constitution," said Capt. Chris Ricks, director of public information for the Highway Patrol. "We feel that this is a legislative issue. We can more than justify any money we receive from the Highway Fund."

Rep. Joan Bray, D-St. Louis County, said a constitutional change would be "going to extremes."

"I think the legislature and MoDOT can work together on some other issues of accountability," said Bray, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee for Transportation. "There are a number of other things that can be done that aren't so politically complex."

Further complicating the issue is the fact that counties and cities also receive a portion of the highway funds. Boone County expects about $1.1 million from gas taxes in 2002, according to the treasurer's office. The city of Columbia received $1.9 million from gas taxes in fiscal year 2001.

Gary Markenson, executive director of the Missouri Municipal League, warned tampering with that money would trigger statewide opposition.

"Every city and county official in the state of Missouri would be beating them over the head," Markenson said. "Do you think MoDOT could prevail over every city and county official in the state?"

Dick Burke, executive director of the Missouri Association of Counties, said the association would be "vehemently opposed" to such redistribution.

"The people of this state have consistently said they want some of this money to come back home to their local communities," Burke said.

The State Transportation Commission does not have specific plan of action, said chairman Ollie Gates. He said he is not narrowing options at this point.

"It doesn't all boil down to the 6-cent tax," Gates said. "There are some good ideas out there, and we're going to listen to a lot of folks."

Dan Mehan, president and CEO of the Missouri Chamber of Commerce, is one of those folks who's talking.

Mehan said the chamber would like to see an end to "tax revenue diverted for something other than it was collected for." He said the failure of Proposition B's tax increase, which would have netted $483 million for transportation, revealed a "lack of confidence in state government."

"People don't want to entrust any more of their resources," Mehan said. "Figuring out the budget without a tax increase is important. MoDOT's not the problem here. Correct the diversion. Institute fiscal discipline on the state of Missouri."

Missouri is not alone in its budget crisis or its scramble to find options. According to a report from the National Conference of State Legislatures, 26 states have cut spending and 16 states have increased various taxes to salvage budgets for fiscal year 2003. Nine states have delayed capital projects, and five states raised motor fuel taxes.

Direct comparisons of state transportation budgets are difficult, because each state divides its resources differently. However, Hungerbeeler said Missouri falls far short in terms of available dollars per mile.

"We have the seventh largest state highway system in the country, but the funding we receive ranks about 43rd," Hungerbeeler said.