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On the Trail, an occasional column by St. Louis Public Radio political reporter Jason Rosenbaum, takes an analytical look at politics and policy across Missouri.

Transportation Tax Supporters Still Aim For 2014 Vote

Jason Rosenbaum/St. Louis Public Radio

Proponents of a transportation sales tax were dealt a big blow last year when a legislative effort died at the last minute. But that doesn’t mean they’re giving up on putting a 1-cent sales tax increase before voters.   

Organizers behind the effort are laying the groundwork for an initiative petition drive over the first half of the year if the legislature doesn't move on the issue. The proposal is aimed at improving the state’s transportation infrastructure at time when gas tax revenues are less reliable.  

Jack Cardetti, a spokesman for the pro-tax Missourians for Safe Transportation and New Jobs, said his group hasn’t decided on which route to take this year. His organization has already put forward an initiative petition similar to the legislative proposal, but it hasn’t started gathering signatures yet.

But he said supporters of the tax are prepared to bring the issue to voters later in the year.

“We just think that this is a really important issue for Missourians to tackle,” said Cardetti. "The most effective way to create jobs and to save lives is investing in our roads and bridges. And that’s exactly what this proposal would do.”

But just as the proposal has bipartisan support, it also has bipartisan opposition. Opponents contend the tax increase is too large – and would hurt the poor and the elderly on fixed incomes. Others say it’s too focused on road construction instead of mass transit.

“You have the city of St. Louis or the city and county of St. Louis paying a huge share of this sales tax and really not getting close to their fair share back and probably not getting the projects that the region really wants and needs, which I would argue are public transit projects,” said St. Louis Alderman Scott Ogilvie, I-24th Ward.

Weighing options

During the 2013 session lawmakers considered a proposal for a 10-year, 1-cent sales tax increase. About 90 percent of the estimated $8 billion in total proceeds would have gone toward high-priority transportation projects. The remaining 10 percent would have been split between cities and counties for local transportation initiatives.

While different versions of the proposals passed the Missouri House and Senate, a last-minute filibusterin the Senate derailed the proposal. But even after the legislative defeat, many saw the tax plan coming back -- either through an initiative petition or another legislative push.

“Both of those routes are available to us right now,” Cardetti said. “We haven’t made any final decisions about that.” 

The Missouri Association for Social Welfare challenged the initiative petition, contending that the ballot summary didn’t adequately describe the proposal.

Cardetti said he doesn’t expect the group’s lawsuit to be successful, but he said his group is holding off on gathering signatures for now. If courts make any changes to the summary, it would invalidate signatures.

Because the sales tax increase is a constitutional change, it needs more signatures than a statutory change. Jewell Patek, the deputy treasurer for Missourians for Safe Transportation and New Jobs, quipped, “Collecting signatures in the middle of January isn’t all that profitable,” adding that people usually aren’t interested in signing petitions in cold weather.

Cardetti said the group would like to circulate petitions in the “middle to late winter” to meet a May 4 deadline for signatures.

“We’re always fine-tuning the proposal to make sure that it’s something the voters can support and that it’s also the right long-term investment for Missourians to make,” Cardetti said. “We know that the transportation proposal can create jobs in the short term, but we also know that having a modern transportation system is going to make it easier for Missouri to recruit business and to expand business.” 

Strange bedfellows

If the 1-cent sales tax makes it to the ballot next November, it will have allies on both sides of the political fence.

Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill
Credit File Photo: UPI
U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.

Senate President Pro Tem Dempsey, R-St. Charles, Sen. Mike Kehoe, R-Jefferson City, and former Sen. Ryan McKenna, D-Jefferson County, donated funds to a separate political action committee to support the tax proposal. And U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill said earlier in 2013 that she would campaign for the measure if it makes the 2014 ballot.

“We get more money from the highway trust fund than we pay in,” said McCaskill, D-Missouri, last August. “So the federal government is doing its part. But the state has got to step up because we have more miles per capita than almost any other state in the union and one of the lowest revenues for maintaining our infrastructure of any state in the union.”

But the proposal drew major opposition from some conservative lawmakers. State Sen. John Lamping, R-Ladue, led the filibuster of the tax last May. He said, among other things that the tax was too big and could crowd out other funding priorities.

It’s also drawing opposition from the left. While opponents primarily criticize the tax’s size, Ogilvie has contended that the vast majority of the tax will go to benefit highway construction. Even if tax proceeds given to cities and counties could be used for mass transit, Ogilvie said the money may not be there for maintenance and operation. 

Alderman Scott Ogilvie, I-24th Ward
Credit Jason Rosenbaum/St. Louis Public Radio
Alderman Scott Ogilvie, I-24th Ward

“Then we would end up in a place where Metro might (want) another line, but they wouldn’t have the money to operate the line,” said Ogilvie during a recent edition of the Politically Speaking podcast. “And that means we’re not going to build a line because all of our operational money is generated locally. People need to recognize what a bizarre situation that is. Almost every state helps fund a metro region’s transit and Missouri is a real outlier in that.”

But Cardetti said that the Missouri Constitution bars the state’s gas tax from going toanything besides highway construction. A sales tax, he said, would “clearly make investments for funding public transportation” initiatives “more widely available.”

“We clearly know that in a modern economy, those are things we need to be doing,” Cardetti said. “Along with the fact that cars are getting better gas mileage nowadays – both because of consumer behavior and because of regulation – they’re going to continue to get better gas mileage. That means the gas tax is a diminishing revenue source.”

Staying out

Meanwhile, one notable player in the debate over state policy is out of the transportation fight.

United for Missouri's Carl Bearden is a skeptic of the prescription drug monitoring program.
Credit Marshall Griffin, St. Louis Public Radio
United for Missouri executive director Carl Bearden says his group will stay out of any fight over raising the state's sales tax for transportation projects.

United for Missouri contributed both organizational and financial resources to the unsuccessful bid to override Gov. Jay Nixon’s veto of a multi-faceted tax cut. But United for Missouri executive director Carl Bearden said his group won’t get involved if the transportation tax comes up for a vote.

“United for Missouri had taken no position on the issue,” Bearden said in an e-mail. “Transportation (roads & bridges) is a legitimate government function. While there is a question about using a statewide sales tax for public transportation, UFM does not plan to run a campaign against the initiative.”

Bearden, a former Republican state legislator, did note that a 2002 bid to raise taxes for transportation purposes failed decisively. He also said that “Missouri voters have shown a great reluctance to increase taxes over the years.”

The Missouri Department of Transportation "has worked hard to fix their reputation over the years,” Bearden said. “It will be interesting to see if the voters will approve such a large request.” 

On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics.

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.