Some Missouri lawmakers want to raise one tax. Here’s why that’s a good thing

The Missouri General Assembly needs to pass a stand-alone gasoline tax increase to make a long-overdue down payment on road maintenance.
The Missouri General Assembly needs to pass a stand-alone gasoline tax increase to make a long-overdue down payment on road maintenance. File photo

Missouri has taken the long road when it comes to boosting highway funding, but lawmakers now appear to be on the brink of a much-needed major breakthrough with just weeks to go in the 2018 session.

Given the turmoil gripping the Capitol these days with the ongoing Gov. Eric Greitens saga, that’s something of a minor miracle.

This week, highway backers are expected to break a logjam by considering a stand-alone transportation bill calling for increasing the gasoline tax by up to 10 cents a gallon. Depending on the size of the increase, the measure may have to go before voters this year.

At stake would be a boost, when fully implemented, of up to $412 million a year, including funding for cities and counties. That’s a far cry from the additional $825 million a year that the Missouri Department of Transportation says it needs now to adequately maintain the system.

But $412 million would represent at least a down payment, and that’s significant.

That lawmakers are willing to consider any type of gas tax increase in an election year is a sign of just how desperately needed new funding is. Some key facts:

▪  Missouri’s system of 34,000 miles of highways and 10,400 bridges add up to the nation’s seventh-largest system.

▪  The state gasoline tax of 17 cents a gallon hasn’t budged since 1996. Many registration and licensing fees haven’t risen since 1984, and some haven’t moved since 1969.

▪  Other states have rolled with the times. Pennsylvania led the nation in 2017 with a 58-cents-a-gallon gas tax. Kansas stands at 24 cents, Nebraska at 28 cents, Iowa at 30 cents and Illinois at 34 cents.

The underfunding in recent years undoubtedly plays a role in highway safety. Missouri’s 15.5 roadway deaths per 100,000 population are far above the national average of 11.6. The state ranks 12th highest in the nation behind Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana and Kentucky, among others.

But the proposal to boost the tax still faces a precarious path. So far this session, plans to increase highway funding have been attached to sweeping tax-cut proposals as a way to balance those measures. Some lawmakers, though, think those tax-cut measures are in trouble. They have too many moving parts that have become magnets for critics.

So highway backers are in the process of decoupling the highway-funding measures from the tax packages. A transportation-only measure is expected to emerge this week, and that may have the best chance of passage.

“I’m still hopeful that we can get something done in terms of transportation investment,” said state Rep. Kevin Corlew, a Kansas City Republican who chaired a transportation task force that recommended a 10-cents-a-gallon gas tax increase in January.

How big a boost lawmakers decide on hinges on whether they want Missourians to sign off on it or not. A small increase wouldn’t require a statewide vote. Another factor: Do they want to bypass Greitens who remains something of a wild card on highways? He’s said little about the need for more funding except that he continues to oppose tax increases.

But the time has come to boost funding for the first time since the 1990s. Lawmakers have a chance to notch a signature achievement despite all the attention directed at Greitens and his possible impeachment.

An increase of at least 10 cents a gallon is in order. Any step in that direction would be better than where the state is now, which is stuck in first gear.