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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: Do lawmakers have the political fortitude to pass a transportation tax hike?

Construction on I-70
Missouri Department of Transportation
Construction on I-70

Even though transportation experts have been sounding the alarm for years, lawmakers and voters haven’t come to a definitive solution to get money funds for the state's roads and bridges. A bid to raise the state’s sales tax foundered badly in 2014, while initiatives to institute tollways have gone nowhere.

This time around, some transportation-minded lawmakers want to raise the state's gas tax by a couple cents -- without triggering a statewide vote. Legislators nearly approved a 1.5-cent gas tax hike last year, and at least one Republican senator thinks it’s worth it to try again. 

Sen. Dave Schatz, R-Sullivan said he's not sure how voters would receive an "escalated gas tax" .... But sometimes, it’s up to us as legislators to make tough decisions in order to look at that.”

Schatz was a House co-sponsor of legislation to put the ultimately futile three-fourths of a percent sales tax increase on the 2014 statewide ballot. He’s fearful that without additional revenue, the state won’t be able to secure federal transportation dollars. (That’s because federal money usually requires a match from the state.)

(For what it's worth: The Associated Press' David Lieb reported on Monday that increased revenue from gas taxes and a new federal highways bill should keep the state's transportation situation stable -- for now.)

In order to get something done, Schatz said his fellow Republicans that control the Missouri General Assembly will have to step out of their ideological comfort zones – even if it means embracing a tax increase.

“Sometimes people have put themselves in a box because of the statements they’ve made. That they’ve promised to come here and to lower taxes and not raise taxes,” Schatz said. “And I think sometimes that’s very dangerous to make those statements.

“We can have the argument about whether we believe MoDOT has been great stewards of the resources that they’ve had in the past ...,” he continued. “But we can’t deny the fact that what we have in front of us is a problem. And the only way we can solve it is trying to find a way to increase the funding necessary to be able to maintain and take care of the roads and bridges we have – much less any future construction on any new roads and bridges that may or may not be able to help us attract industry and grow jobs here in the state of Missouri.”

Cloudy future

Schatz alluded to how some conservative lawmakers in both chambers strongly opposed any effort to raise the gas tax last year. It’s highly possible they’ll stake out their opposition this year too, especially since many lawmakers will be up for re-election in August and November. 

House Speaker Todd Richardson
Credit Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio
House Speaker Todd Richardson

And some lawmakers have put up alternatives: Sen. Ryan Silvey, R-Kansas City, sparked plenty of conversation throughout social media when he suggested lawmakers should examine the size of the state's road system.Others have suggested cutting other places in the budget and moving the savings to fund transportation projects.

When asked about the prognosis on the issue, House Speaker Todd Richardson said in late December he wants transportation funding to be a priority this year. But he added that he’s “not sure that there’s any strong consensus on what that solution needs to be.”

“I think it will continue to be a very, very difficult task to pass a tax increase through this legislature. I think that includes both the House and the Senate – particularly in an election year,” Richardson said. “We’re going to be focused in the House on finding some ways to improve the transportation system and the amount of money we’re spending on transportation through the budget – and trying to find some ways that we can prioritize that spending as we have revenue growth.”

Richardson said “a small gas tax increase is not going to solve some of the major transportation projects we have either.” He went on to say that the “the long-term solution to transportation is going to be a discussion that we’re going to be continuing to have as a state for some time.”

“MoDOT estimates that the cost of rebuilding I-70 will be somewhere between $2 billion and $4 billion,” Richardson said. “Even assuming we’ve got a full federal match from that project, we’re talking about $400 million to $800 million of state money. That’s not something that a 2 cent gas tax increase is going to fix.”

While emphasizing his respect for Richardson, Schatz said he didn’t think it was realistic that lawmakers will find enough savings in the budget to boost transportation funding.

“I think it’s optimistic thinking from his point to say that we can find areas of the budget,” Schatz said. “There’s a never-ending need of people looking for money in the budget. Obviously, we talk about education funding and how people believe that we haven’t met the commitment to the foundation formula. And so, where do you pull dollars from? There are some proposals out there that we could talk about. Maybe moving a few things around and trying to find some budgeting dollars.

“But all of those are just going to be Band-Aids,” he added. “Even a 2-cent tax increase is not going to solve the future of transportation funding here in the state.”

Semantics slam dance

Gov. Jay Nixon pledged his support for a small gas tax increase last year. This reporter noted that this seemed to go against his campaign rhetoric in 2008, when his spokesman stated plainly “Jay won’t raise taxes.” Nixon responded that raising the gas tax amounted to a user fee, which isn't inaccurate since the only people that pay it are motorists filling up their cars. 

Former Gov. Bob Holden
Credit Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio
Former Gov. Bob Holden

I brought this up to former Gov. Bob Holden during a recent Politically Speaking podcast. And the Democrat who faced some political heat for advocating tax increases had a bit of a different perspective on the matter.

“I think that you could talk to any political pundits. They would tell you never call for a tax increase. You use ‘user fees’ or whatever,” Holden said. “It’s still an increase on taxes of one kind or another. I come from a background being a fiscal conservative. It drove me up a wall to see waste anywhere. But I think there are certain responsibilities you have as a society and as a government of your people to provide the resources so they can be successful. We’ve got the sixth largest highway system in the country, but the lowest gas taxes in the country – or one of the lowest.

“There’s no way that those two can ever meet and serve us well,” he added. “We’ve either got to reduce the amount of roads that we’re taking responsibility for or we’ve got to improve the roads that we have through some type of revenue.”

For backers of more transportation funding like House Minority Leader Jake Hummel, the label on a gas tax hike is immaterial. The St. Louis Democrat says he's more interested in getting something accomplished.

“You can call it whatever you want, as long as you get it done. I don’t care. Sell it however you want to. But the need is there,” Hummel said. “We’ve somehow in government gotten out of trying to do what’s in the best interest of the great good – trying to find some common ground in the middle. And so, you’ve driven these people so far to one side they’re unable or unwilling to come back in the middle and go govern. And it’s a problem.”

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.