When lawmakers need to buy time on a tough issue or avoid taking a tough vote, they typically set up a task force.
To no one’s surprise, that was the move Missouri legislators made this week, the latest twist in the ongoing saga of how to fund state highways.
Ridiculous, this is.
The General Assembly’s 21st Century Missouri Transportation System Task Force is to include 23 members: lawmakers, the public and the governor. They are to hold public hearings, determine needs and figure out how to pay for it all.
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They’ll report back to the legislature by January, and even then, lawmakers will almost certainly wiggle and squirm and avoid addressing the issue. Why? Because 2018 is an election year.
Prediction: This task force will be nothing but a giant waste of time.
Anyone paying any attention already knows that Missouri needs better and safer roads. It’s obvious when you get behind the wheel and head out of town. And it’s obvious because the need has been thoroughly documented.
In 2012, the 22-member Blue Ribbon Citizens Committee on Missouri’s Transportation Needs issued its final report and concluded that the state “needs to invest an additional $600 million to $1 billion annually … to address Missouri’s critical transportation needs.”
In 2003, another blue-ribbon panel undertook the same task. In other words, the issue has been studied to death.
Every one of the 197 legislators in Jefferson City knows that the road network in Missouri is the nation’s seventh-largest. They know that the state’s highways are funded with one of the lowest fuel taxes anywhere. At 17 cents a gallon, the tax ranks 46th nationally.
In comparison, fuel taxes in Pennsylvania now top 50 cents a gallon.
The only question is whether lawmakers have the courage to vote for a tax increase. Some legislators, such as Sen. Bill Eigel, a Weldon Spring Republican, still operate under the illusion that the state can come up with the hundreds of millions of dollars needed from existing revenue.
That’s pure folly. Legislators already are unable to meet basic needs, such as prescription drugs for poor seniors.
Lawmakers overshot in 2014 with a proposal that called for a three-quarters-cent sales tax bump for transportation. Voters crushed it, giving the plan only about 40 percent support.
Last year, state senators courageously passed a bill calling for a modest 5.9 cents-a-gallon gas-tax boost, only to see the House kill it. (Note to lawmakers: 2016 also was an election year. That’s why the inaction this year was so troubling).
Let’s get real: If a proposal for more state support for highways is to have anything close to a realistic chance, gubernatorial leadership is required. Iowa is a great example. It passed a 10-cents-a-gallon boost in 2015 knowing that its longtime governor, Republican Terry Branstad, had campaigned on the issue.
In Missouri, former Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, never championed the cause. Gov. Eric Greitens, a Republican, was noncommittal during the 2016 campaign and avoided any mention of highways in his State of the State address in January.
If his ambitions truly are aimed at the White House, he may continue to steer clear of the issue. That way, he can avoid endorsing a tax increase, and his state, at the crossroads of America, will decline. Or he can get to work and show some true leadership on a vital issue.