Missouri House endorses 1-cent sales tax for roads

Missouri voters would be asked to approve a 1-cent sales tax to fund roads, bridges and other modes of transportation under a measure endorsed Tuesday by the state House.

The proposed constitutional amendment would appear on the November ballot if passed by the Legislature. It needs another affirmative vote in the House before moving to the Senate.

State transportation officials estimate the penny sales tax would generate $800 million annually, amounting to $8 billion total during the 10-year lifespan of the tax. It would need to be reauthorized by voters in 2024 to remain in effect.

Supporters said the measure is essential for Missouri to maintain its infrastructure and to finance new road construction. The Transportation Department says that it takes $485 million annually to maintain roads in their current condition but that the state’s construction budget is projected to dip to $325 million in 2017.

“We do have a funding problem in our state,” said sponsoring Rep. Dave Hinson, R-St. Clair.

But opponents said there are better ways to secure the funding. During debate, a Democratic amendment to raise the state’s tax on gasoline and diesel to fund road construction was defeated.

“A sales tax is not the only way to go about doing this,” said amendment sponsor Rep. Jon Carpenter, D-Kansas City. “(The gasoline tax) is a more fair and equitable way to go about this important effort.”

He said the sales tax increase would disproportionately affect lower-income Missouri residents who may not frequently use the state’s road system.

House Republicans opposed his amendment, arguing it would not generate enough revenue to adequately fund the state highway system. They also said voters would be less likely to approve the amendment’s 3-cent increase on gasoline and 9-cent hike on diesel. Missouri currently imposes a 17-cent-per-gallon tax on both gasoline and diesel.

Carpenter projected his amendment would bring in $180 million annually, which is about a fourth of the projected sales tax revenue.

Under the legislation, 10 percent of funds raised by the sales tax would also go toward local transportation projects. Cities could earmark a portion of those local funds to other forms of transportation, including air, rail, bicycle and pedestrian projects.

A dispute over the bicycle funding temporarily halted debate on the measure last week. An amendment was offered that would have prevented any of the new tax revenue from being spent on bike paths. Some House Democrats vowed to oppose the entire bill if the bicycle restriction was adopted. Ultimately, the House defeated that amendment Tuesday.

Under the legislation, the sales tax increase would not apply to purchases of food.

If approved by voters, the proposed constitutional amendment would require a subsequent vote of the people to change the gas tax rate or place tolls on existing roads and bridges.

A similar transportation sales tax proposal was passed by both the House and Senate last year, but it failed to win final passage during the closing days of session.

Transportation officials have long been forecasting a decline in available construction dollars due to a variety of factors. A bond-financed surge in construction during the last decade has now dropped off, while the payments continue. Federal highway funding has become more uncertain and fuel taxes have flattened out, partly because of more fuel-efficient vehicles. Construction costs have also risen.