Campaign ads urging voters to increase Missouri’s sales tax to pay for road and bridge repair don’t actually ask for a tax hike.
In fact, the words “tax” and “increase” don’t get mentioned at all.
In one commercial, a pair of paramedics and a construction worker implore voters to “fix our roads, and keep Missouri families safe.”
“Here in Missouri,” the trio proclaim, “we fix what’s broken.”
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In another, a paramedic says experience being “first on the scene of a horrible accident” helped motivate him to support the tax increase.
Both notably leave out how the plan would be the largest tax boost in Missouri’s history.
With time ticking down before voters head to the polls Tuesday, proponents of the sales tax increase have a massive campaign war chest at their disposal to make their case. They also have a delicate balance to strike, inspiring voters who support the measure to show up without inflaming an electorate in Missouri loath to raise taxes of any kind.
“I don’t do a lot of pro-tax campaigns, but when I have I never bring up taxes,” said Jeff Roe, a veteran GOP political consultant doing some work for supporters of the sales tax boost. “That’s not unique. In these types of campaigns, the less you talk about taxes the better.”
The purpose of the ad — and the campaign in general — is to demonstrate the dire condition of Missouri’s highway system and what it means in the everyday lives of Missourians, said Jewell Patek. He’s the campaign manager for Missourians for Safe Transportation and New Jobs, the group that paid for the ad.
“Missourians understand that our roads and bridges are deteriorating,” Patek said. “We need to make our roads and bridges as safe as possible, and we don’t have the revenue to do that.”
The idea faces detractors across the political spectrum. Those on the right criticize the size of the tax increase and the switch away from user fees to pay for highway repair. Opponents on the left say that sales taxes are exceptionally painful for those living in poverty and that the proposal before voters gives short shrift to other forms of transportation, most notably mass transit.
Both believe there are better ways to pay for improvements to the state’s transportation infrastructure.
“Much of the truck traffic that does the most damage to our roads doesn’t start or end in Missouri, it just passes through,” said Thomas Shrout Jr., treasurer for Missourians for Better Transportation Solutions, the group opposing the ballot measure. “So they aren’t paying sales taxes; the working families of Missouri are paying sales taxes.”
If approved by voters, the state’s constitution would be amended to increase the sales tax by three-quarters of a cent for 10 years. During that time, the state’s tax on gasoline would be frozen and new toll roads would be prohibited.
The tax boost would raise an estimated $5.4 billion over its lifetime. Local governments would get 10 percent of that additional revenue. The rest would go to the state.
The result would be an infusion of cash for projects ranging from widening Interstate 70 across Missouri to a proposed streetcar line expansion in Kansas City. But it would also mark the first time that Missouri’s roads have been funded with something other than a user fee, the bulk of which comes from state and federal taxes on gasoline.
Without a new source of revenue, say officials at the Missouri Department of Transportation, they soon won’t have money to adequately maintain roads and bridges, much less undertake any major new projects.
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.
It is projected to dip to $325 million by the 2017 budget.
“To put that in perspective, it takes about $485 million a year just to keep our system in the condition it is today, with no improvements at all,” said David Nichols, director of the Missouri Department of Transportation. “So the highway system is going to deteriorate quite soon.”
There are multiple reasons behind the funding shortfall, Nichols said. A bond measure issued 10 years ago is ending, and federal stimulus dollars have dried up. Additionally, Missouri hasn’t raised its 17 cents per gallon gas tax in 20 years. Neither has the federal government.
“The cost of building projects has gone up two or three times since we last raised the gas tax,” Nichols said. “Cars are more fuel efficient and people are driving fewer miles, both of which are good things. But it means we can no longer rely on fuel taxes as a consistent revenue stream.”
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.”
The shape of the road system in Missouri is nowhere near as bad as proponents of the sales tax boost would have voters believe, said Joseph Miller, a policy researcher with the conservative think tank the Show-Me Institute.
Borrowing and federal stimulus money allowed the state to spend billions on road and bridge repairs in the last decade, and Miller said that means the highway system is “quite a bit better than it was 10 years ago and generally in good condition.”
Paying for roads based on how much people shop instead of how much they drive promotes congestion, road degradation and sprawl, Miller said.
“It also is fundamentally unfair to force occasional drivers to pay as much or more for new roads as interstate trucking companies,” he said.
Instead of shifting the funding source away from user fees, Miller said the state should raise the gas tax and implement tolls on major highways.
“If the gas tax was simply adjusted for inflation, it would be 8 cents higher and generate almost $300 million per year in additional revenue,” he said.
Patek, the campaign manager for the proponents of the sales tax plan, said a number of different plans have been proposed over the years, but increasing the gas tax and toll roads proved incredibly unpopular with voters.
“The sales tax is the one plan that has consensus support,” he said.
Nichols says it also provides more flexibility. Revenue from the gas tax can only be used for roads and bridges. Local governments will be allowed to use the increased sales tax revenues on trains, ports, bike trails or any other transportation need they identify.
If the battle comes down to campaign spending, the proponents have a massive advantage. They’ve raised more than $4 million in donations from those who stand to benefit directly from the increased transportation funding — highway contractors, labor unions, engineering firms, heavy equipment dealers and concrete and asphalt producers, among others.
Opponents have raised barely a fraction of that amount — a little more than $25,000.
But proponents will need every bit of that money if they hope to win a majority, because the electorate in August is smaller and more conservative than voters who show up in November, said David Robertson, a professor of political science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
“More of the August voters,” he said, “will be responsive to the doubts and criticisms of Amendment 7 opponents, even if those opponents will have fewer resources to get their criticisms to voters’ ears and eyes.”
To reach Jason Hancock, call 573-634-3565 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.