Barbara Shelly

Missouri road tax increase is a study in bad behavior

Among other problems, Missouri’s tax request to fund road repairs requires nothing from out-of-state trucks.
Among other problems, Missouri’s tax request to fund road repairs requires nothing from out-of-state trucks. File photo

To vote for Amendment 7 on the Missouri ballot Tuesday is to reward bad behavior.

There are reasons you might want to do just that. You might be tired of being pinned in among 18-wheelers on Interstate 70 and willing to support any plan that widens that corridor. You might be salivating over the jobs that will be created from about $5.4 billion worth of highway and transit projects. You might really want to advance the streetcar plan in Kansas City.

I get all that. And my hunch is that Amendment 7, a proposal to raise the state sales tax by three quarters of a cent, will pass on Tuesday. Supporters are working with a campaign budget of $4 million, compared with a little more than $25,000 for the organized opposition. That is a very helpful mismatch.

However, I cannot let Tuesday’s election roll around without reminding voters how cynically the Missouri General Assembly treated them and their money in the last legislative session.

In May, the legislature finalized a constitutional amendment raising the sales tax to pay for roads and transit projects. The tax will last 10 years and is expected to raise $500 million to $600 million a year.

But only a couple of weeks earlier, the same legislature overrode a veto by Gov. Jay Nixon and passed a bill that gives a nice income tax break to upper-income households and certain types of businesses. When fully phased in, it will cost Missouri at least $621 million a year.

Picture your elected representative handing off a $600 million wad of bills with one hand while holding out an open palm with the other. The GOP controlled legislature wants to give money away to people who need it least while asking everybody else to pay more with every purchase they make (thankfully excluding food and prescription drugs) so that the state can maintain one of its basic functions.

What is up with these people?

You’d have to ask them, but don’t hold your breath for a coherent answer.

Some of them honestly believe the hokum put out by huckster economist Arthur Laffer and his cheerleaders at the American Legislative Exchange Council that a big rush of jobs will follow income tax cuts. It’s not working in Kansas but, well, that’s different.

Others subscribe to the “starve the beast” mentality. But the beast — so-called big government — is looking pretty sickly in Missouri already. For one thing, funding for elementary and secondary schools is $566 million short of the formula that the legislature itself approved. And besides, if your goal is to shrink government, why ask for more money to fund roads?

Here’s the thing. Some lawmakers in Missouri may want to starve government, but they themselves like to eat. And interests like road builders and truckers and labor unions are good for providing freebies and fattening the campaign coffers.

That’s why lawmakers found it so important to embark on a dedicated road building program. And it’s why they wouldn’t even consider tolls or a gasoline or diesel fuel increase, all measures that would place the onus of road building on the people, like truckers, who use the roads the most. If Amendment 7 passes, the state would be barred from considering a gas tax or tolls for the next 10 years.

All of this is terrible public policy. But here we are in August and the ads are all about highway safety and nothing about asking for the largest sales tax increase in Missouri history on the heels of a massive giveaway to special interests.

The architects of Amendment 7 threw in a heap of sweeteners, including a huge financial boost for Kansas City’s streetcar plan. And it’s probably true that if the amendment fails, it will be years before another road plan materializes.

But whatever you decide, just know this: The Missouri legislature tossed its integrity under the wheels of a big rig this session, and support for Amendment 7 allows members to avoid any consequences.

Reach Barbara Shelly at 816-234-4594 or Twitter: bshelly.