JEFFERSON CITY – Missouri voters defeated a multi-billion-dollar sales tax hike for transportation Tuesday, a significant setback for highway officials who have warned that the state soon won’t have enough money to repair all of its aging roads and bridges.
Voters also said no to a lottery ticket for veterans and said yes to measures on gun rights and electronic privacy. A proposed constitutional amendment creating a right to farm in Missouri appeared to have prevailed in a close election.
The three-quarters cent sales tax under proposed Constitutional Amendment 7 would have funded more than 800 highway and transportation projects, including the widening of Interstate 70 to three lanes in each direction between Kansas City and St. Louis. It was projected to generate at least $540 million annually for 10 years, making it Missouri’s largest-ever tax increase.
But that proved to be too much to accept for Missouri’s generally tax-averse voters. With the final, unofficial results posted just after midnight, the vote was 59.2 percent no and 40.8 percent yes out of just fewer than 1 million votes cast.
“I think we’ve got enough taxes already, and I think they need to spend their money more wisely,” said Jamie Owenbey, 50, a state worker from Jefferson City who voted against the measure.
“There’s not a tax I would vote for – no new taxes at all,” added Mike McArthy, 53, a self-employed outdoor photographer and writer from Cottleville.
The general sales tax would have marked a historic shift for a state that has relied solely on user fees such as fuel and vehicle taxes to fund its highways for nearly a century. Missouri voters have not passed a tax increase for roads since 1987, though the Legislature approved a gradual fuel tax increase in 1992.
Votes also said no a lottery ticket that would have raised an estimated $3 million to $6 million a year for veterans homes, which have waiting lists, as well as veterans cemeteries and outreach services so veterans are aware of and receive all of the benefits to which they are due.
State Rep. Sheila Solon, R-Blue Springs, had sponsored the measure in the Missouri House for several years and this year got it passed and on the ballot.
“This defeat is not a reflection of a lack of support for our veterans,” Solon said Tuesday evening. “The Legislature is going to have to step up.”
She said Gov. Jay Nixon has vetoed $8 million for veterans in the state budget. Nixon has said he had to make many such cuts to balance the budget. Solon said legislators will have to try to override those cuts for veterans services when they hold their veto session next month.
Since 1994, all proceeds from lottery tickets in Missouri have gone to education.
Two that passed
Voters did approve two amendment to the Missouri Constitution:
• Enhancing the state’s constitutional right to keep and bear arms. The passage Tuesday of Constitutional Amendment 5 will expand state gun rights to cover ammunition and other accessories. It also will declare those rights to be “unalienable” and require any gun-control restrictions to be subject to strict legal scrutiny.
In the final, unoficial vote, it was 60.9 percent yes to 38.2 percent no. The amendment was referred to the ballot by Missouri’s Republican-led Legislature, which has pursued numerous pro-gun measures in recent years.
Opponents ran no advertising campaign against it but had challenged the measure unsuccessfully in court. They said the ballot wording failed to inform voters of all of the amendment’s key provisions, including the fact that it deletes current constitutional wording allowing restrictions on concealed guns.
• Bolster legal protection of electronic communications through an amendment on digital privacy. The measure got a yes from 74.7 percent of the voters.
The amendment requires police to obtain warrants before searching or seizing “electronic communications and data,” such as cellphones, emails and computer flash drives. Supporters say the broader legal definition will help guard against excessive government intrusion such as the recent National Security Agency eavesdropping scandal.
Earlier this year, Missouri lawmakers easily approved a resolution to place the measure on the ballot. The amendment faced no organized opposition, with groups representing police and prosecutors remaining largely quiet during a brief election campaign.
Another constitutional amendment, creating a right to farm in Missouri, appears to have prevailed in a close election.
Proposed Constitutional Amendment 1 had 498,751 votes for it and 496,223 against it with all precincts reporting – a margin of less than three-tenths of a percentage point.
The amendment proposed to make farming an official constitutional right, similar to existing protections for the freedoms of speech and religion.
The Missouri proposal prompted an intense campaign that generally split urban and rural areas. Supporters said it could help ward off future initiatives limiting genetically modified crops or restricting the way animals are raised. Opponents contended the measure could be cited by corporate farms to try to escape regulations.
The sales tax proposal for transportation was placed on the ballot by the Republican-led Legislature with the support of some Democrats.
Voters had to weigh the need for more road funding – the state’s highway budget is projected to drop to $325 million by 2017 from a recent high of $1.3 billion annually – against the cost of a tax hike that could have pushed the total state and local sales tax to near 10 cents on a dollar in some areas.
Without additional money, the Missouri Department of Transportation has said it soon won’t be able to adequately maintain the state’s roads and bridges, much less undertake major new projects.
State Sen. Mike Kehoe, a former transportation commissioner who supported the tax proposal, said it’s unlikely the Legislature will put forward another transportation funding plan next year. Rather, he said it may take the closure of old bridges or other extreme measures before the state’s transportation needs become apparent to more people.
“The problem’s still there, the system size is still there, the number of bridges are still there, and the funding is still declining,” said Kehoe, a Republican from Jefferson City.
State transportation commission Chairman Stephen Miller said he believes Missourians understand the need for more funding, but he said the election shows “there just isn’t any consensus on how to pay for it.”
Construction contractors, labor unions, engineering firms and others who stood to benefit from increased transportation spending poured more than $4 million into the campaign for the sales tax. They had outspent opponents by a more than 100-to-1 ratio heading into the final weeks of the campaign.
The opposition consisted of general anti-tax activists, as well as others who feared the sales tax could hit the poor the hardest while demanding nothing from heavy highway users such as trucking companies.
The defeat is “an opportunity to continue the conversation and come up with a funding mechanism that makes sense and includes trucks in some fashion,” said Thomas R. Shout Jr., a St. Louis consultant who was treasurer of the opposition group.
The Examiner staff contributed to this article.