Here’s the thing about Missouri highways and the 2016 race for governor.
It’s an unforgiving issue — almost cruelly so from a political standpoint — because it practically demands that a candidate be candid with the people of Missouri.
That’s because it’s almost impossible to ignore the following:
▪ The state is woefully short of funding when it comes to maintaining its 34,000 miles of highways — and did I mention Missouri has 10,400 bridges?
▪ A tax increase — and maybe multiple tax increases — are almost certainly required. Key lawmakers from both parties in Jefferson City agree on that, and this issue has been kicking around for years. Consider it fully vetted.
▪ Adding tolls along Interstate 70 has to be considered. In fact, it may be an essential element, albeit a controversial one, when it comes to finding ways to pay for the $2 billion to $4 billion needed to rebuild the state’s chief artery.
There’s something else at work here, too. The state’s next governor will be a central player in any new highway plan. So that person’s views are critical.
Given all that, highways should rank as a top issue in the race between Democrat Chris Koster and Republican Eric Greitens. But it’s gotten scant attention because the solution is staring at the state in capital letters — TAX INCREASE.
Get this: Missouri has the seventh-largest highway system in the nation, but ranks 47th nationally when it comes to spending per mile.
And there’s this: At 17 cents a gallon, the state hasn’t boosted its gasoline tax since 1996. (New Jersey, with a Republican governor, just passed a 23-cents-a-gallon fuel-tax increase. That’s on top of what it already was levying.)
So what are we getting from Koster and Greitens? A woeful lack of specifics from both, but an unpardonable lack of candor from Greitens.
For his part, Koster says this: “MoDOT is going to require additional revenue in order to keep Missouri’s roads in good condition,” he said in a candidate questionnaire. In the candidates’ one debate in Branson, he talked about the need to develop a “bipartisan funding solution.” That’s the way state leaders have addressed highways issues for decades. Even then-Gov. John Ashcroft, as conservative a governor as the state’s ever had, once worked with Democratic lawmakers to raise gasoline taxes by 10 cents a gallon.
Koster doesn’t offer specific amounts. He doesn’t specify priorities. And Koster hasn’t uttered the word “tolls,” at least that I’ve heard.
But he’s acknowledged the issue and, to his credit, he’s acknowledged that some type of tax boost is in the offing.
Greitens isn’t even in the ballgame, undoubtedly because he doesn’t want to go on record as citing the need for any kind of tax increase before the election.
He talks about the need for “increased infrastructure spending,” but without a tax increase. The needs, though, are simply too great. He talks about the need for a “full audit of MoDOT and an effort to find further efficiencies in the department.”
What he doesn’t acknowledge is the steady work the department has done in recent years to cut 1,200 workers, sell hundreds of pieces of heavy equipment and close 124 maintenance barns. In other words, MoDOT has established fiscal credibility knowing that requests for higher taxes were in the offing.
The time to move on a major need like this is in year one of a new governor’s term. That’s when a Missouri chief executive has the most clout and can get results. Using that year to conduct another audit doesn’t get it done.
Who’s talking straight on this one?