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Transportation commissioner: legislature could consider tax hike without voter approval

October 24, 2002
By: Amy Menefee
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - Missouri's legislature could raise the state's gas tax -- this time without voter approval -- to help finance bond debt, suggested one Highways Commission member in a special meeting Thursday.

"It's entirely up to the legislature," said Commissioner Bill McKenna, who said the Missouri General Assembly could raise the fuel tax by about 2.5 cents without voter approval under the Hancock Amendment. He said $75 million raised annually from such an increase would take care of payments on current bond debt.

And what about citizen support for a legislative tax hike?

"It all depends on if they want roads," McKenna said. He pointed to the absence of new revenue following voters' overwhelming rejection of Proposition B's tax as a catalyst for seeking new options.

"We're not going to sell any more bonds," McKenna said. "It's not our job to raise the money. It's not our responsibility to put things on the ballot or propose them."

Other commissioners agreed that selling more bonds without additional income would be fiscally irresponsible. Commissioner Barry Orscheln called it "mortgaging our future."

Commissioner Jim Anderson agreed.

"I think our hands are tied until the state or federal revenue picture changes," Anderson said.

McKenna, a former state senator and president pro tem of the Senate, stressed that he did not believe the commission should endorse a tax increase.

Transportation Director Henry Hungerbeeler agreed, saying responsibility for increased revenue lies with the legislature.

"It's not up to us how the money comes to us," Hungerbeeler said. "It's really not our decision."

Legislators will be back at square one on transportation with at least 83 new members entering the General Assembly next session, said Rep. Joan Bray, D-St. Louis County. Bray, a member of the House Appropriations Committee for Transportation, is running for state Senate.

"I think (a tax hike) would be a difficult sell," Bray said. "In the General Assembly, the general feeling is that tax increases need to be voted on by the people."

But Bray, as other legislators have in the past, argued that it is department's responsbility to bring revenue-raising issues before the legislature.

"They should be bringing those ideas to the table," Bray said. "That's their business."

Sen. David Klindt, R-Bethany, said ideas need to come from many sources, including citizens and the administration, and any new funding would have to start small and phase in over several years.

"Any type of revenue enhancement is going to have to be tied to some form of accountability," said Klindt, a member of the Senate Transportation Committee.

Hungerbeeler said he is concerned about accountability, and he told the commission his department wants to focus on "building public trust" through taking care of the existing road system and finishing what they've started.

"To many people, credibility is a smooth road," Hungerbeeler said. "Our credibilty has eroded because we have allowed the condition of our roads to deteriorate. The reasons are not important to the public; it's important that we change it."

Hungerbeeler said MoDOT's credibility restoration plan comes from many factors, and that it was an issue before Proposition B was introduced. He dismissed the idea that MoDOT was merely responding to Gov. Bob Holden's charge to the commission in September.

Holden was unavailable for comment Thursday.

The commission delayed a decision on proposals for statewide fund allocation, which MoDOT's chief engineer, Kevin Keith, said must be made by December or January to give MoDOT time to work out the next five-year plan. The commission meets again Oct. 31 to continue discussion.