As they did early in the legislative session last year, Missouri lawmakers have already signaled that no one should expect any significant action on funding for transportation this year.
Funding available just for upkeep of roads and bridges continues to fall, and that doesn’t even touch the big stuff such as rebuilding and widening Interstate 70 with its estimated price tag of $4 billion. By comparison, the entire state budget is about $27 billion.
At a Blue Springs Chamber of Commerce breakfast last week, a local business leader called out local legislators for their failure to act. Deteriorating roads, he said, amount to a tax on business.
“We’re doing nothing because the people of this state told us to do nothing,” answered Rep. Mike Cierpiot, R-Lee’s Summit and majority floor leader in the Missouri House.
That’s not the whole story. Legislators put a flawed and unpopular sales tax for roads and bridges on the ballot two and a half years ago. Neither legislative leaders nor Gov. Jay Nixon got out to the voters to make the case for that tax and the 800 projects it would have funded. The ballot measure also did nothing to have truckers pay their fair share. The voters said no, by a lot.
That measure came out of the General Assembly. And Nixon’s ideas went nowhere with legislators, but Cierpiot and others were – and remain – highly critical of what they call Nixon’s lack of leadership on the issue.
Now a new governor, Eric Greitens, has taken office and so far has offered nothing to address the issue.
“The new governor hasn’t really weighed in yet. I’m waiting to see what he does,” Cierpiot said.
The reason Missouri Department of Transportation funding for actual roadwork is falling is that more money has to be diverted to pay off bonds for work done years ago.
“I disagree with what they did in that they spent the money up front,” said state Sen. Will Kraus, R-Lee’s Summit.
Again, that’s not the whole story. The “they” who did that is we the people who 13 years ago approved a short-sighted ballot issue that gave a brief burst of funds – now long gone – in exchange for today’s bills. Kraus pointed out that there’s no consensus in Jefferson City on any of the three likely solutions – toll roads, a higher gas tax or more general revenue – and he said the new governor needs to lead.
“He needs to come up with a plan and get behind it,” he said.
Any comprehensive solution will involve billions of dollars, and Cierpiot points out that the state’s Hancock Amendment means that would have to go to the voters.
Just look at I-70, he said.
“It’s a big deal, and it’s tough to do,” he said.
There’s more. Lobbyist Fred Dreiling this week cautioned Jackson County legislators that a bill is back, and getting a look in the General Assembly, to give lettered highways – and their upkeep – back to counties. The state took over those decades ago.
“It’ll be an enormous bill,” said County Legislator Greg Grounds, R-Blue Springs. “... I hope they don’t make that decision. … It’s just passing the buck down the line.”
After the sales tax ballot issue was rejected in 2014, I wrote in this space: “The main question now is what's next. That brings us to a hard reality. There is no Plan B. Never has been.”
That is still true.
The Grain Valley Partnership, the group formed from the recent merger of the Chamber of Commerce and the Economic Development Commission, is having its first “Business After Hours.” It’s from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. Thursday at Funtastic Balloon Creations, 1103 N.W. Casey Blvd. … Pie Five Pizza says its Independence store, at 18921 E, Valley View Drive, will open this Friday. … … The Blue Springs Chamber of Commerce is having “Meet Me for Breakfast” event at 7:30 a.m. Thursday at the Big Biscuit, 530 N.W. Missouri 7. … This Friday is the deadline for submitting entries for the Independence Business Awards, presented by the Independence Economic Development Council. The seven categories are small business of the year (fewer than 50 employees), major employer of the year (more than 50 employees), manufacturer of the year, hospitality business of the year, non-profit of the year, philanthropic business of the year; and emerging business of the year (a company in business less than three years).
Jeff Fox is The Examiner's business reporter and editor. Reach him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @FoxEJC.