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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.

On the Trail: 'Jay won't raise taxes' pledge resurfaces during road funding debate

Gov. Jay Nixon
Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio | File photo
Gov. Jay Nixon says there's a distinction between a gas tax increase and "trying to get some sort of generalized additional revenue."

There are some absolutes in electoral politics: Babies will get kissed. Hands will get shook. And politicians will promise not to raise taxes.

While we don’t know the exact quantity of kissed babies or shaken hands during the 2008 campaign governor, it is clear that all three major candidates in the 2008 race for governor made solemn declarations against tax hikes.Former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman swore “there will be no new taxes in a Steelman administration.” And the eventual GOP nominee, former U.S. Rep. Kenny Hulshof of Columbia, made a similar oath. 

But it’s the words of then-Attorney General Jay Nixon’s spokesman that come to mind at the present day when now-Gov. Nixon called for the legislature to pass a gas tax increase. Back in April 2008, the governor’s campaign spokesman Oren Shur avowed that “Jay won’t raise taxes.”

That rhetoric continued in Nixon’s 2012 gubernatorial campaign. In the middle a campaign ad that extolled the virtues of Jefferson County living, Nixon boasted about “holding the line on taxes” and signing into law a GOP-backed bill that eliminated the franchise tax. The governor also took a pass on getting involved in a tax increase for cigarettes in 2012 and opposed a transportation sales tax increase in 2014.

But as the state’s transportation leaders are sounding the alarm about a funding shortfall, Nixon embraced a bill that would have raised the state’s gas tax by about 1.5 cents. Supporters say it could help the state keep its federal matching funds at a time when the state’s infrastructure needs are fairly acute.

Here’s how the governor described Sen. Doug Libla’s bill in a statement earlier this month:

“Traditionally in Missouri, we’ve paid for fixing our roads and bridges through user fees like the gas tax, because it ensures that the burden is borne fairly by those who cause the greatest wear and tear, including trucks and travelers who use our roads from out of state,” Nixon said. “But that source of revenue has remained stagnant, and even declined.

“While we must continue working on solutions to meet our long-term challenges, this bill is a sensible approach that will help us meet our immediate needs and protect those who travel on our roads and bridges,” he added.

The pros and cons of that proposal are pretty well established– and moot since the General Assembly adjourned without passing Libla’s legislation. But the episode does bring up the question of whether Nixon is going against his “Jay won’t raise taxes” mantra.

When this reporter brought up Shur’s statement at the governor's end-of-session news conference, Nixon replied: “I don’t know what my spokesman said. I’ve always said I’d hold the line on taxes.”

But he went onto say that “I think this is a situation where you’ve got a clear user fee that Missourians have always used in the past to pay for what we need.”

“And clearly, if you look at where we are and what is happened, the mileage has gone up in cars since that time dramatically,” Nixon said. “And Missourians understand you don’t get something for nothing. And user fees to build infrastructure is something we’ve done in other areas.”

Nixon said there have been user fees applied to certain things within the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Natural Resources. He added that “I see meeting the costs of infrastructure or programs that you have – such as weights and measures and some of the permitting things – as being different than trying to get some sort of generalized additional revenue.”

“I was hopeful this year we could get done the incremental step,” Nixon said. “I think Sen. Libla’s bill laid out an initial framework to get going. And I spent a great deal of time trying to work out some issues there. About a week ago, I thought there was a path forward there. I think everybody understands issues to deal with by 2017. The match number at the federal level [is getting to a point] where on the revenue stream alone we’re not going to match them. So I think it’s one of those issues we’ll continue to work with folks. But it certainly hasn’t gotten off my ‘to do list.’”

Never, ever, ever, ever, ever?

In the same article about the three candidates’ tax pledges, Missouri State University political science professor George Connor contended that “no new taxes” pledges ranks up “there with the most disingenuous campaign statements in the history of the world.” And of course, many politicians – most famously President George H.W. Bush – got in trouble for making them. 

Sen. Paul Wieland, R-Imperial, opined on the idea of iron-clad pledges during an interview on his "right to work" vote. While he says he refrains from absolutes, Wieland doesn't envision any scenario where he'd vote for right to work -- which bars arrange
Credit Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio
Sen. Paul Wieland, R-Imperial, opined on the idea of iron-clad pledges during an interview on his "right to work" vote. While he says he refrains from absolutes, Wieland doesn't envision any scenario where he'd vote for right to work -- which bars arrangements where workers must pay union dues if a majority has voted to organize.

One elected official gave a little bit of insight into this philosophy while the General Assembly was petering out.

During an interview about his vote against “right to work,” this reporter asked Sen. Paul Wieland, R-Imperial, whether there was a scenario where he could support that policy. Wieland answered “not that I can see right now, no.”  

“I hate painting myself in a box,” Wieland said. “Even during the campaign, people said, ‘You’ve signed a pledge saying you’ll never ever, ever, ever, ever raise taxes.’ And I’m reluctant to do that because I don’t know what will be facing me a year down the road or five years down the road. But I would say it’s very doubtful I can see any scenario now where I would vote for right to work.”

(Coincidentally, Wieland represents the same Jefferson County-based seat that Nixon held back in the 1980s and early 1990s.) 

If that “very doubtful” scenario occurs, it would be a titanic about-face for Wieland. After all, he told the Politically Speaking podcast last year that “with the immigration policy we have in the United States, I think right to work is a terrible idea for the state of Missouri.”

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

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