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Missouri voters asked to raise gas tax for the first time since 1996

Flickr | Mike Mozart
A proposition on the ballot in November asks Missouri voters if they want to gradually raise the gas tax from 17 cents to 27 cents per gallon.

When Missouri last boosted its gas tax 22 years ago, the TV show “Third Rock from the Sun” premiered, “Cats” became the longest-running musical on Broadway, and a gallon of gasoline cost $1.32.

Drivers pay 17 cents a gallon in state tax in Missouri, among the lowest in the nation. Proposition D, on the Nov. 6 ballot, asks voters if they want to gradually raise the rate to 27 cents by 2022.

“There has been, obviously, a tremendous amount of inflation since 1996,” said Len Toenjes, president of the Associated General Contractors of Missouri and the chairman of the campaign supporting Proposition D. “If you do the math, the 17 cents in 1996 buys about 7 cents of goods right now. This 10 cents in four years would get us back to the same level we were back in 1996.”

Once fully implemented, Proposition D is forecast to raise about $400 million a year for state and local road and bridge projects, and for the Missouri State Highway Patrol.

The increase would eat into the bottom line of trucking companies like Witte Brothers, which is based in Troy, Missouri. Fuel makes up about 16 percent of the budget, said president Brent Witte. But he views the tax increase as an investment, rather than an expense.

“We like to look at it as a pro-business, pro-growth approach, and I think if we have good highways, I think we can attract more industry into the state,” Witte said.

There’s little organized opposition to Proposition D, and Republican Gov. Mike Parson’s support may give cover to more traditionally anti-tax members of his party. Others, like state Rep. Phil Christafonelli, R-St. Peters, aren’t persuaded.

“Every time we want to cut taxes around here, we’re told, ‘this must be revenue neutral,’” Christafonelli said when the state House debated the measure in May. “But today, we’re not worried about whether this is revenue-neutral for the taxpayer. We’re increasing revenues for the state and taking it out of the pockets of hard-working Americans.”

Other opponents worry the St. Louis region won’t get enough its fair share of road dollars, and some are upset that a portion of the funds will go to the Missouri State Highway Patrol.

That’s nothing new, Toenjes said. The Missouri Constitution requires that the road fund covers the “actual cost of the state highway patrol in administering and enforcing any state motor vehicle laws and traffic regulations,” subject to appropriation by the General Assembly. Over the 22 years since the last gas tax increase, the percentage of the road fund needed to meet the patrol’s needs has gone up.

“What this does is relieve that pressure so there is more money for roads and bridges, and it does offset that percentage creep that the highway patrol has had,” he said.

The new road money would help the Missouri Department of Transportation make a dent in about $825 million of unfunded priority projects. Most importantly, Toenjes said, the agency has been spending its reserves for a year or two.

“That can only go on for about another two years, and then we’re into not meeting federal match,” he said. “Then we’re into a lot of issues that put pressure on other parts of the budget.”

Gov. Mike Parson poses with organizers of the Best in Midwest and Talent for Tomorrow Summit on June 27 2018, where infrastructure and workforce development were top of the agenda.
Credit Melody Walker | St. Louis Public Radio
Gov. Mike Parson after speaking at a conference in St. Louis in June, where he pushed for approval of a fuel tax increase.

The pro-increase campaign has at least $2.5 million in the bank, and a wide range of supporters from municipal leagues to local chambers of commerce to the International Association of Firefighters. But the biggest boost, perhaps, is coming from Parson and Lt. Gov. Mike Kehoe, both of whom are stumping for it across the state.

“I think it’s probably been a long time since a governor’s probably been out in front on a tax issue,” Parson said at an Oct. 16 appearance in St. Louis. “I’ve never been out in front on one before. But the reality is, at some point you’ve got to put the politics to the side, you’ve got to put the popularity issue to the side, and you’ve got to say, what is really best for the state of Missouri? What is really the right thing to do for the future of the state?”

Follow Rachel on Twitter: @rlippmann

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.