Missouri lawmakers struggle to find transportation funding - KCTV5

Missouri lawmakers struggle to find transportation funding

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Some Missouri lawmakers are rallying around a proposal to raise the gas tax by 2 cents to help forestall a transportation funding shortfall that officials have warned could jeopardize the state receiving federal dollars.

The Missouri Senate and a House committee on Tuesday considered similar measures that would increase the per gallon fuel tax from the current 17 cents to 19 cents, effective in January 2016. Supporters say the measure would not have to go before voters and would be an initial step to addressing urgent transportation funding needs.

"Are we going to have to wait for a bridge to fall in on Interstate 70?" asked Sen. Doug Libla, R-Poplar Bluff, the Senate sponsor of the measure.

The Missouri Department of Transportation faces a steep decline in the state's construction budget for roads and bridges — from $1.3 billion annually in 2009 to $685 million this year, and it is expected to drop to $325 million in the fiscal year 2017 budget. Increasing efficiency of cars resulting in less gas use, the expiration of a bond program to finance transportation and increased construction costs have all contributed to the transportation funding problems.

The department plans to focus that money on fully maintaining just one-quarter of the state's 32,000 miles of roads and has warned that bridges and other roads will deteriorate.

The 2-cent increase from the current level of 17 cents per gallon would bring in additional $55 million for the transportation department, allowing the state to match all of its expected federal funds in 2017. But the increase would not be enough to match all federal funds in 2018, according to department spokeswoman Holly Dentner.

Libla had initially proposed increasing the gas tax by 2 cents each year for three years and having inflation-based increases thereafter, which would have addressed the federal-match issue for longer. That proposal was dropped after some lawmakers expressed concerns about potential state constitutional challenges.

The Missouri Constitution includes an inflation-adjusted cap — currently at $94 million annually — on the amount of tax increases that can be approved without a vote of the people.

The 2-cent increase would not have to be approved by voters.

Last August, voters defeated a proposed three-quarters cent sales tax that would have raised at least $540 million annually for transportation for 10 years. That amount would have allowed for full maintenance, new construction and a resumption of the state's cost-share program on local transportation projects.

"If you had another half billion dollars a year, you could do great things in the state of Missouri," said MoDOT's chief financial officer Roberta Broeker at a House hearing Tuesday. "But this is a start."

Several Republican House and Senate members expressed support for the gas tax increase, but others remain strongly opposed to imposing a tax increase.

"I really wouldn't have a problem with this if we were sending it to a vote of the people," said Sen. Ed Emery, R-Lamar.

Another proposal considered by the House Transportation Committee would also avoid a vote of the people. Rep. Dave Hinson, R-St. Clair, helped put the sales tax increase on the ballot last year. This year, his proposal would change the way gas taxes are calculated to a percentage of the price. That would allow the amount to increase as the price of gas increases.

Neither the House committee nor the Senate voted on the proposals Thursday afternoon.

Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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