gas tax

Gas tax [Proposition D] on MO ballot: I voted yes before I knew what I was doing

Proposition D on Missouri’s 2018 midterm ballot asks voters whether to increase the tax on a gallon of gas. Should you vote for it?  Good question. If passed, Proposition D would raise the gas tax by a total of 10 cents, over four years. That doesn’t sound so bad, does it? After all, tax included, a gallon of gas in Missouri costs less than the same gallon in Illinois. You could argue that we’re getting a disproportionate bargain, and that voting yes would bring Missouri in line with neighboring states.

According to a summary published by the League of Women Voters of Metropolitan St. Louis, the current tax is 17 cents per gallon for both gasoline and diesel fuel, compared to Iowa’s 31 cents for gasoline and 32.5 cents for diesel fuel. The higher tax is estimated to generate at least $288 million annually for the Highway Patrol and $123 million annually to local governments for road construction.

I generally support tax increases, because it’s clear from the necessity of continuous cutbacks in services, Missouri government is not adequately funded. But then I started thinking about the regressive nature of sales taxes, and how this increase would put a disproportionate burden on people at lower income levels. And then I read an op-ed by former Missouri legislator Joan Bray. As someone who served 18 years on the Missouri legislature—with a major focus on transportation — Bray’s opinion carries weight. She is urging voters to say no to Prop D, saying that it contains a “poison pill that should outrage voters.”  Here’s her argument, as published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

Just like the last two proposals for gas tax hikes, this increase would disproportionately help rural areas by funding only interstates and “letter highways.” Under the state constitution, gas tax goes solely to roads and bridges. None can be spent for urban or rural public transportation, passenger rail, ferries or bicycle paths. This proposal makes sure those modes continue to starve.

I had hoped that after the sound drubbing voters gave the last two gas tax hikes, the concrete cartel in Jefferson City would realize it should address the plight of all transportation modes. But it decided to obfuscate instead. It is promoting the tax for safety — funding the Highway Patrol — while shifting the patrol’s current appropriation to roads and bridges.

The bill’s poison pill defies responsible distribution of state revenue. It sets up the “Emergency State Freight Bottleneck Fund” into which the Legislature would appropriate general revenue. At last, the road and bridge guys could legally take from the pot of money already gutted by tax cuts to build their pet projects.

Who would lose from this sleight of hand? Anyone who relies on state funding for elementary and secondary schools, universities, mental health care, Medicaid, hospitals, criminal justice and prisons, environmental protections, and, not to forget, other modes of transportation without their own special tax like roads and bridges have.

Once again, myopic transportation planners in Jefferson City need to be denied. Locking the state into more funding that ignores the transportation needs of millions of urban, rural and poor Missourians seals the state’s fate in concrete.

Here’s the exact wording that you’ll see on the ballot under Missouri Proposition D. You decide. Full disclosure: Unfortunately, I voted absentee—and I voted yes—before Bray’s op-ed was published. Oops. Someone out there, please cancel me out with a no vote.

Shall Missouri law be amended to fund Missouri state law enforcement by increasing the motor fuel tax by two and one half cents per gallon annually for four years beginning July 1, 2019, exempt Special Olympic, Paralympic, and Olympic prizes from state taxes, and to establish the Emergency State Freight Bottleneck Fund? If passed, this measure will generate at least $288 million annually to the State Road Fund to provide for the funding of Missouri state law enforcement and $123 million annually to local governments for road construction and maintenance.