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

Even though MoDOT has figured out a way to draw down federal funds to keep the maintenance of the state road’s up to minimum standards for at least the next five years, there still is no funding model that includes new road projects, such as the rebuilding of Interstates 70 and 44. This article by Jason Rosenbaum of St. Louis Public Radio talks about the bigger picture of road building in Missouri.

From St. Louis Public Radio

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.

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.”

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