Area legislators are expressing support – with reservations – for a transportation sales tax on the Aug. 5 ballot in Missouri.
“There’s really no other solution on the table at this point,” said state Rep. Tom McDonald, D-Raytown. He spoke at an Independence Chamber of Commerce legislative briefing Friday morning, as did other officials who spoke as a similar chamber event in Blue Springs.
State Sen. Paul LeVota was critical of the idea at first, as legislators this spring initially discussed a one-cent tax for roads and other modes of transportation. The centerpiece of the plan is widening Interstate 70 across the state, a freeway that LeVota said is vital to the economy of the region and the state as a whole.
“... I ended up supporting it because this is going to be a real infrastructure boost to our state,” LeVota said.
State transportation funding has been slipping for years. State Rep. Sheila Solon, R-Blue Springs, pointed out that the Missouri Department of Transportation four years ago had a budget of $1.4 billion, with $800 million in federal funding. But federal funding now has fallen to less than $450 million.
The three-fourths-cent tax on the ballot would last 10 years and generate an estimated $5.39 billion.
“The big thing is that it will have a 10-year sunset,” Solon said.
One-tenth of that $5.3 billion comes directly back to cities and counties, leaving $4.8 billion for MoDOT to divide. The biggest chunk – $500 million – is for I-70. It would be widened from Blue Springs to Wentzville, making it six lanes statewide.
That leaves $4.3 billion for MoDOT to do other work, and Kansas City would get about one-sixth of that, or $775.7 million over 10 years. Officials this week have been putting together a list of priorities that goes to MoDOT on Monday, and the agency is to announce its final list – so voters know what they’re voting on – late next month.
At the moment, the biggest project on Kansas City’s list is replacing the Broadway bridge over the Missouri River in Kansas City, at a cost of $150 million. Other projects include bridge work at I-70 and I-435 ($40 million), work on I-70 near the Kansas state line ($65 million) and replacing Chipman Road bridges and reconfiguring I-470 and U.S. 50 in Lee’s Summit.
Still, legislators expressed a range of concerns.
One is that sales taxes hit those with low incomes the hardest, as a percentage of their income.
“It’s terrible. It’s a regressive tax,” said Rep. Ira Anders, D-Independence.
Also, local governments rely more heavily on sales taxes than the state does, and a higher statewide tax – it would be just under 5 percent if the transportation tax passes – could cut into voter support for those local taxes, which are often targeted for specific services such as police, parks and streets.
“It just really circumvents local control,” McDonald said.
Blue Springs Mayor Carson Ross warned state legislators about a “tough sell” for a dedicated sales tax for transportation. He cited this past November, when his city put a question on the ballot asking residents for a half-cent sales tax for park maintenance and a community center. The voters said no.
McDonald also said it makes no sense to cut taxes – as legislators have done this year with an income-tax cut that could kick in as early as 2017 – while asking voters to raise taxes elsewhere.
“It’s raising taxes because you lowered taxes, and that’s a hard concept for me to grasp,” he said.
Raising the gasoline tax didn’t get far in the General Assembly. Critics of the idea say cars are more fuel efficient these days and people are driving less, making that a shaky source of revenue.
Ross did have a suggestion: Tax the large number of tractor-trailers that drive through the state each day on I-70. Solon said that could possibly be a plan B if the transportation tax question does not pass Aug. 5.
The ballot measure also rules out toll roads for 10 years. Solon said she had brought up that idea at town hall meetings in the past.
“The idea of toll roads,” she said, “came down with a thud.”