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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.

McCaskill And Nixon May Sing Different Tunes On Transportation Tax

When it comes to a proposal to raise the state’s sales tax to pay for transportation projects, two of Missouri’s top Democratic officials appear to be on opposing sides of the fence.

U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill favors the proposal, which – if approved by voters in August – would enact a 10-year, 0.75 percent sales tax for transportation projects. And even though he’s sent signals that he opposes the proposal, Gov. Jay Nixon is withholding statements about the tax increase for now.

McCaskill’s support of the sales tax isn’t new. Last year in Springfield, the senator said that the GOP-controlled General Assembly’s failure to put the tax up for a vote reflected misplaced priorities. She quipped that lawmakers“got Sharia law and Agenda 21 and nullification of federal laws that they can deal with, but not adequately funding education or transportation in this state.”

Now that lawmakers have passed the plan, McCaskill told reporters on a conference call last week that “it is reassuring [the legislature] spent some time in Jefferson City on a problem that is real, significant and serious in Missouri.”

“And so, I will vote for it,” she said.

To be sure, McCaskill isn’t completely enamored with the proposal. She said she was “disappointed” legislators put the sales tax increase on the ballot at the same time lawmakers cut income and business taxes.She added it sent a message that it was “OK to pass along a big tax break to a lot of folks who don’t need it in a way that was fiscally irresponsible and then turn around on the other side of their mouths and tell everyone we want to pay more sales tax.”

McCaskill also said a sales tax increase tends to be regressive, the reason many Democratic state legislators oppose the measure. But she said building the state’s transportation infrastructure is important enough to come out in favor of the proposal.

“Is it my first choice on how to fund transportation? Probably not. But it doesn’t mean that I’m not willing to support it. I will support it. Because we’ve got to get some additional revenue for our roads in Missouri,” McCaskill said. “They want to talk about what makes Missouri an attractive business climate, well funding higher education and having good roads and bridges are way more important than Rex Sinquefield’s plan to do away with everyone’s taxes entirely and make us all into Kansas.”

Nixon’s opinion is less clear.

Gov. Jay Nixon is asked about the transportation tax during an appearance last week at the Danforth Plant Science Center.

When Nixon criticized the income tax cut in April, he listed raising "sales tax on Missourians" as one of four measures approved by the legislature that, taken together, “threaten to take what has been a AAA-rated state with a solid record of fiscal discipline and certainty and put it at risk.”

“Those are not our values, and that’s not how we’ll move our state forward,” Nixon said on April 16.

Nixon’s official Twitter account also linkedto critical articles on the transportation tax, including one from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s David Nicklaus that concluded “we shouldn’t consider a regressive, unfair highway tax until we’ve made an effort to get more revenue from a fair, efficient one.”

But when asked last week whether he was opposed to the sales tax, Nixon demurred: “I’m just going to withhold any statements about that at this particular juncture.”

Nixon's actions may have trumped his words: He scheduled a vote for the transportation tax in August along with amendments guaranteeing a "right to farm" and strengthening gun rights.Primary elections typically have lower voter turnout, but efforts to pass the tax may suffer if conservatives go to the polls to cast ballots on those other measures.

'Tough road'

To be sure, Nixon's and McCaskill's positions are largely symbolic, since the public – not political figures – will decide the fate of the tax. 

Credit Tim Bommel, House Communications
House Majority Leader John Diehl, center, voted to put the transportation tax increase on the ballot. But he's not optimistic that it will pass.

But it's not uncommon for politicians' opinions on ballot issues to have an impact. McCaskill's decision to vigorously back a constitutional amendment protecting stem cell research in 2006 probably helped her win her first election to the Senate -- and may have helped the measure pass. (Her support of a cigarette tax increase in 2012 was less successful.)

But it may take more than political support to get voters to approve the tax. House Majority Leader John Diehl, R-Town and Country, voted to put the measure on the ballot.

But he said, with a laugh to emphasize the pun, that the proposal faces a “tough road.” That echoes the sentiment of both supporters and detractors of the tax.

“I just think it’s going to be a tough sell," said Diehl on a recent episode of the Politically Speaking podcast. “The proponents are going to have to clearly explain what the benefits are for the public, why this additional funding is needed and that money’s being spent in a responsible manner.”

St. Louis Public Radio political reporter Jo Mannies contributed to this story.

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

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