Mo. Digital News
Missouri Digital News
Mo. Digital News
Missouri Digital News
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By Phill Brooks
«RM75»«FC»«MDBO»COL166.PRB - Gas Taxes and Political Courage«MDNM»
As Missouri's legislature enters its final days, I've been fascinated by the Senate Republican leadership's efforts to push for a gasoline tax increase without voter approval.
Republicans campaign for tax cuts, not tax hikes.
That the Senate's two top Republican leaders are defying a core philosophy of their party says something about how serious they consider to be the needs of the state's transportation system.
Consider what they are going against.
Less than one year ago, Missouri voters decisively rejected a sales tax increase for transportation.
These GOP leaders do not even have the public support of a majority of their own party's members. More than half of the Senate Republicans voted against the first tax-hike plan. They've faced the threat of a Republican filibuster.
Consider the risks they are taking.
The last time Missouri's legislature overturned voter rejection of a tax increase was more than four decades ago. And it caused a split among the majority Senate Democrats that lasted for years.
I'm seeing now a similar split developing among Republicans. And it's taking on a slight bit of the bitterness I saw in that earlier era.
Consider the chances of success.
The prospects are, at best, slim. A similar transportation tax plan got rejected by the House Transportation Committee.
Despite the risks and the limited chances of success these two Senate Republican leaders -- Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey and Senate GOP Leader Ron Richard -- have been persistent.
They have allowed hours of Senate time to be consumed on this issue in the closing days of the session when time is valuable.
When the first bill got bogged down with an amendment that could have led to privately operated toll roads, they allowed the sponsor -- Sen. Doug Libla, R-Poplar Bluff -- to come back with another attempt.
This is an act of political courage I rarely have seen in Missouri's statehouse.
Their Senate opponents actually agree about the magnitude of the problem. There's a general sense that a crumbling highway infrastructure and increasing congestion ultimately will hamper the state's economic growth.
But the opponents argue for alternatives to just raising taxes.
Sen. Rob Schaaf has suggested privately developed and operated toll roads.
That's an approach used in many areas of Europe. Those roads are outstanding. But the tolls are far higher than I suspect many Missourians would tolerate. Besides, Missouri voters have rejected the idea of toll roads.
Some have suggested returning to counties the thousands of miles of county roads the state took over under a compromise package that included a gasoline tax increase more than one-half century ago.
The consequence was that Missouri's Transportation Department now maintains more miles of roads than many states.
Like this year's effort, that tax increase was sponsored by a Republican --- St. Louis County Rep. R.J. "Bus" King who subsequently became the House GOP leader.
Another idea has been to raise the fees for the heavy trucks that cause much of the highway damage and road congestion.
But that would jack up the costs of goods delivered on highways. So, ultimately, the cost would be passed on to consumers.
Another idea has been to base the gasoline tax on the purchase price, like the sales tax, rather than the current per-gallon tax. That would provide a built-in inflation increase in revenues for the Transportation Department.
But when gasoline prices fall, as they did recently, it actually would cut highway funding.
first some of the most ardent supporters of the gasoline tax increase agree a full solution will require more than just a tax increase.
In fact, the Senate plan would generate only one tenth of the approximate $500 million the Transportation Department has said it needs for its annual budget.
So far, there has been no comprehensive plan offered by the department, by the governor or proposed in the legislature.
But in their defiance of political wisdom, Dempsey, Richard and Libla have at least started the conversation.
[Phill Brooks has been a Missouri statehouse reporter since 1970, making him dean of the statehouse press corps. He is the statehouse correspondent for KMOX Radio, director of MDN and an emeritus faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism. He has covered every governor since the late Warren Hearnes.]
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