Gov. Mike Parson should try again to pass a gas tax for crumbling Missouri highways

Larry Benner of Independence thinks he knows exactly why Missouri voters rejected a proposed gas tax increase in November.

They were confused.

“TV ads emphasized road repair, but failed to mention a large portion going to the Highway Patrol. No wonder it did not pass,” Benner wrote in a letter to The Star shortly after the vote. “What a costly mistake.”

The ballot language did, in fact, make it appear that most of the new tax money would fund the Highway Patrol — not state highways. In reality, the proposal would have freed up tens of millions of dollars for roads. But the fuzzy ballot language undermined support. Others expressed similar views.

“Give me an honest gas tax for just roads and bridges, and I will vote for it,” David Bartholomew of St. Louis County wrote to The Post-Dispatch. “Play games with it, and I will not vote for it.”

What a costly mistake indeed. The proposal was defeated, with just 46 percent of voters supporting the measure even though it had the active backing of Mike Parson, the state’s new governor.

A lot of governors would run from the idea of pursuing another costly road fix. That’s why we appreciate this governor standing firm. In his State of the State address, Parson proposed borrowing $351 million to repair or replace 250 bridges across the state.

Parson recognizes that Missouri can’t just walk away from the issue. The state’s highways and bridges are too valuable. Remember: With nearly 34,000 miles, Missouri has the country’s seventh-largest highway system. With 10,000 bridges, it ranks sixth in the country. And yet its 17-cents-a-gallon gas tax is the 49th-lowest in the country. Parson is correct: We must take care of what we’ve got.

Given his options, borrowing the money is a reasonable choice. But that adds to the state’s debt and to the price tag for this already costly work through interest payments.

Still, Parson should proceed down that road. He should also do something else: Pitch another gas tax increase, and urge lawmakers to place an unambiguous proposal before voters. November’s 10-cents-a-gallon proposal, phased in over four years, was actually too modest, given the need. But even that would have helped enormously.

This is not a fool’s errand.

David Barklage, the veteran Missouri political consultant, pointed out that late-October polling showed the gas tax measure passing easily among likely voters. Barklage said a late surge of conservative voters changed the game. They were drawn to the voting booth by the controversy surrounding Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court and President Donald Trump’s repeated visits to the state for Senate candidate Josh Hawley.

Barklage said the same polling also showed — ominously for the fuel tax proposal — that voter intensity among conservatives had spiked while Democratic intensity had dropped.

Given those unique circumstances and the idea’s early popularity, highway backers shouldn’t give up, Barklage advised.

“It is important that any measure has clean language and does not add other elements (like the money going to the Highway Patrol), as that just underscores voters’ skepticism that the funds will be diverted,” Barklage wrote. Try again with a straightforward proposal or push lawmakers to pass a small increase, he said.

Find a solution now, governor. Otherwise, you’re missing a big opportunity.

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