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Well-Financed Transportation Tax Loses Big At The Polls

Interstate 70 in Columbia, Mo., between St. Louis and Kansas City. The Missouri Department of Transportation says it will propose turning the stretch between St. Louis and Kansas City into a toll road.
(via Flickr/KOMUnews)
Interstate 70 in Columbia, Mo., between St. Louis and Kansas City. The Missouri Department of Transportation says it will propose turning the stretch between St. Louis and Kansas City into a toll road.

Missourians decisively rejected a sales tax increase earmarked for transportation projects, making for a striking defeat for a well-financed campaign from proponents and a victory for an ideologically diverse opposition coalition. 

The tax – commonly known as “Amendment 7” or the “transportation tax” – would have raised Missouri’s sales tax by 0.75 percent for 10 years. It would have also barred Missouri's policymakers from instituting tolls or raising the state’s gas tax during that same time period.

With most of the precincts in, the tax ended up failing by roughly 58 percent to 41 percent. It lost overwhelmingly in St. Louis and St. Louis County. And it also failed to catch fire in the Kansas City area or in rural parts of the state.

While the tax received support from business groups and labor organizations, it sparked opposition from across the political spectrum. Prominent Democrats such as Gov. Jay Nixon spoke out against the measure, while conservative lawmakers like Sen. John Lamping, R-Ladue, panned it as well.

It also sparked a backlash in the St. Louis area, especially because the sales tax in some parts of the city and county would have reached 11 percent if it had passed. 

Members of a group advocating for the proposal’s defeat watched the results come in on Tuesday at the Royale in south St. Louis.

Thomas Shrout, the treasurer of a group that opposed the proposal, said in an interview that his organization targeted people who normally would have voted for tax increase – such as voters in the central corridor of St. Louis. 

Credit Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio
Thomas Shrout lead the group opposing Amendment 7.

“A lot of times there’s like 40 percent of the people who are in favor of it and 40 percent who are against it no matter what. And you fight over the middle 20 percent,” Shrout said. “We focused on the people who normally support taxes and informed them that this would provide very little money for public transportation and it would result in the trucks not paying any more for the damage they do on our state highways.”

Proponents of the measure contended the state needed to find another method to pay for transportation projects, especially since the gas tax is becoming less reliable and the federal funding situation is iffy at best. Supporters included business groups, organized labor organizations and lawmakers from both parties.

The tax also received the backing of groups such as Citizens for Modern Transit, which saw it as a paradigm shift, bringing state funding to mass transit efforts. Some of the St. Louis region’s money, for instance, would have gone toward Metro’s bus and light rail service. It would also have provided operating funds for a proposed streetcar line.

In a statement, Missourians for Safe Transportation and New Jobs, Inc. campaign manager Jewell Patek said his group was “disappointed because we see today’s result as a missed opportunity to secure Missouri’s transportation future.

“A lot of our road and bridge problems are frankly unseen. In the very near future, our problem is going to get worse and our transportation system is going to deteriorate rapidly,” Patek said. “We simply cannot keep our roads in good repair without additional funding. We are committed to continuing this dialogue with Missourians to find a solution they will support.”

MoDOT officials are expected to speak to the media on Wednesday morning. Stephen Miller, chairman of the Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission, said in a statement that “we are very disappointed in the result, but the people have spoken and we respect that.”

“As we have seen for the past several years, I think Missourians have a clear understanding that more resources need to be invested in our transportation infrastructure, but there just isn’t any consensus on how to pay for it,” Miller said. “We need to continue working toward that end.”

Proponents have contended that other methods of funding transportation – such as raising the gas tax or tolling – have polled poorly and may not win approval from a statewide vote. But Shrout said that his group is willing to back another financing method.

“Often times in tax measures, I think the public is saying ‘not this one. Come back and bring us another proposal. Not now,’” Shrout said. “Some people on our side are like ‘never, never, never.’ But that’s our group. We need to maintain our roads. And we need to have more alternate forms of transportation.” 

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