Voters rejected a sales tax increase Tuesday that would have provided billions of dollars for road and bridge repairs.
With 95 percent of precincts reporting, the sales tax hike was defeated with 59 percent voting no and 41 percent voting yes.
“It’s difficult to pass a tax increase in Missouri,” said Terry Ganey, spokesman for Missourians for Better Transportation Solutions, the group opposing the measure. “It’s impossible to pass an unfair tax increase in Missouri.”
That means lawmakers will have to go back to the drawing board to figure out how to fix the state’s transportation infrastructure, most notably a plan to rebuild Interstate 70.
“We will continue our focus on safety, maintaining our roads and bridges, and providing outstanding customer service with the resources we have,” Dave Nichols, director of the Missouri Department of Transportation, said in a statement.
After years of public meetings and debate, lawmakers this year approved a proposed constitutional amendment that would have increased Missouri’s sales tax by three-quarters of a cent for 10 years. Over that time, the state’s tax on gasoline would have been frozen and new toll roads would have been prohibited.
The tax boost would have raised an estimated $5.4 billion over its lifetime. Local governments would have gotten 10 percent of that additional revenue. The rest would have gone to the state.
More than 800 highway and transportation projects would have been funded by the boost.
Over the past five years, Missouri’s construction budget for roads and bridges has fallen from about $1.3 billion annually to around $700 million this year. That drop can be blamed on the end of a bond measure and federal stimulus funds, along with more fuel-efficient vehicles cutting into revenue drawn from the gas tax.
By 2017, the state’s transportation budget is expected to dip to $325 million. That wouldn’t be enough, transportation officials say, even to maintain the current highway system.
Construction contractors, labor unions, engineering firms and others who stand to benefit from increased transportation spending poured more than $4 million into the campaign for the sales tax. They outspent opponents by a more than 100-to-1 ratio heading into the final weeks of the campaign.
But even with that massive fund-raising advantage, proponents knew they always faced an uphill struggle.
Missouri voters historically have rejected such tax increases. And by placing the measure on the August ballot instead of the November ballot, Gov. Jay Nixon ensured it would face a smaller, more conservative electorate more hostile to higher taxes. Nixon, a Democrat, publicly opposed the sales tax increase.
The proposal also faced criticism that spanned the political spectrum over shifting the method of funding highway repair away from user fees such as fuel and vehicle taxes and to a sales tax, which are exceptionally painful for the indigent.
Instead of a sales tax, opponents argued lawmakers instead should increase the gasoline tax, which at 17 cents is one of the lowest in the nation and hasn’t been raised in 20 years.
Proponents say they’ve explored the idea of tolls or a gasoline tax hike to raise the needed funding, but neither is politically feasible at this time. They add that unlike the gasoline tax, which can only be spent on roads and bridges, funds from the higher sales tax could be used to fund any transportation project, from mass transit to bike paths.
According to a 2013 report by the American Society of Civil Engineers, 31 percent of Missouri’s roads are in poor or mediocre condition. Roughly 14.5 percent of the state’s bridges are considered “structurally deficient,” the report says, and an additional 13.8 percent are “functionally obsolete.”
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Other ballot issues in Missouri
Missouri voters appeared to approve three other constitutional amendments on Tuesday’s ballot and reject a fourth.
The “right to farm” amendment was squeaking by. With more than 95 percent of precincts reporting, it was passing with 51 percent voting yes and 49 percent voting no.
If the lead held, it would officially enshrine farming in the state’s constitution alongside ideas like speech and religion. Missouri would join South Dakota as the only states to declare farming a constitutional right.
The amendment was inspired by the 2010 fight over tougher regulations on so-called puppy mills. That effort was bankrolled by the Humane Society of the United States, a national animal-rights organization.
Backers say it is needed to protect farming from outside interests that want to restrict particular farming methods. Opponents argued that it will be used by corporations to escape state and local regulations on pollution, food safety and nuisances.
Although it started as a quiet campaign, both sides combined to spend more than $1 million in the final weeks before Election Day. The measure was financed by the agricultural industry, including the state’s corn, soybean and pork associations. Most of the opposition’s funding came from the Humane Society of the United States.
Voters approved an amendment aimed at strengthening the rights of gun owners. The constitution already included a gun-rights amendment. The new amendment declares that right inalienable. Opponents of the amendment fear it could result in legal challenges to all of Missouri’s gun laws.
An amendment expanding search and seizure protections to cover electronic data also cruised to victory.
Voters rejected an amendment that would have created a Missouri Lottery game to help fund veterans’ nursing homes and cemeteries.