I-70 upgrade in Missouri might take the scenic route to ballot

One way or another, a penny sales tax hike to pay for roads and bridges in Missouri will probably end up on the 2014 ballot.

Sen. John Lamping just doesn’t want it to be the Republican legislative majority that puts it there.

A group of Republican senators this week stalled legislation that would ask voters to temporarily raise the sales tax. The extra revenue from the tax increase would fund updates to the state’s transportation infrastructure, a strategy that will almost assuredly mean rebuilding Interstate 70 from Independence to Wentzville.

The bill is one Senate roll call away from the November 2014 ballot. But with only two days left before the end of the legislative session, a filibuster has put its chances in doubt.

“This is the largest single tax increase in the history of the state of Missouri,” said Lamping, a Ladue Republican leading the filibuster. “For the Republican Party, my party, to use its supermajority in the legislature to place this on the ballot would go against everything we’re supposed to stand for.”

If supporters of the bill — primarily construction companies and organized labor — truly want to raise the sales tax, Lamping said, they can put the question on the ballot themselves.

“If the path to the ballot through the General Assembly is closed, I’m quite confident supporters will be able to use the initiative petition process,” he said.

The proposed sales tax, which officials estimate could generate nearly $8 billion over a decade, would expire in 10 years and be used to fund state highways, local roads and other modes of transportation such as railroads, airports, mass transit and river ports.

Sen. Mike Kehoe, a Jefferson City Republican who has championed raising revenue for transportation projects, said he understands the reluctance of fellow Republicans to raise taxes.

“But this would let the voters decide,” Kehoe said. “After years of discussion about how to fund our transportation infrastructure system, let the people decide if they are ready to do it.”

The payoff for increasing taxes, Kehoe said, would be billions of dollars’ worth of economic development and an estimated 270,000 construction jobs over 10 years.

The issue, which is a legislative priority of Senate leadership, has proved divisive for Republicans.

When the bill cleared the House, Republican Majority Leader John Diehl voted in favor of the legislation, while House Speaker Tim Jones voted no. When the Senate gave initial approval to the bill earlier this year, 14 Republicans joined 10 Democrats in favor, while 10 Republicans opposed it.

House Democrats also split on the measure, with some calling it the only jobs bill that still has a chance this year and others decrying a reliance on a tax that disproportionately affects lower-income Missourians.

“We are asking our senior citizens on fixed incomes, the lowest-income people, to fund this big project,” said Rep. Rory Ellinger, a University City Democrat. “I can’t do that.”

At 6 p.m. Friday, the legislative session is constitutionally mandated to end. Kehoe said that even though time is running short, he had not given up on the idea that the bill can still get across the finish line.

“We’ll do our best to try to address concerns,” he said.

Lamping, however, said he sees little chance he will give up his filibuster and allow the bill to come up for a vote.

If the bill doesn’t pass this year, Kehoe has repeatedly said he will support a signature petition to get the question before voters. The long and expensive process of crafting a ballot measure and collecting signatures would have to begin immediately, he said, for the measure to stand any chance of winning voter approval.

“This is one of the most important issues facing our state,” Kehoe said. “And it’s time Missourians be given the option.”