Senate endorses increased fuel tax for road funding

By The Associated Press

Friday, May 1, 2015

The Missouri Senate on Thursday revived a plan to boost road funding, voting to back a measure that would raise diesel and gasoline taxes in an attempt to lessen an anticipated transportation funding shortfall.

Senators voted 18-13 to grant initial approval to a bill that would raise the tax on diesel fuel by 3.5 cents a gallon and on all other fuel by 1.5 cents. Diesel and gasoline both currently are taxed at 17 cents a gallon.

Another Senate vote is needed to send the measure to the House, where it could face additional opposition with just two weeks remaining in the legislative session.

Senate Republican leaders said they wanted to keep the discussion on the issue going, after a proposed 2-cent gas tax hike failed to make it out of a House committee last week and also had stalled in the Senate.

“Whether we’re successful or not, you’re going to be hearing about the challenges that we have in maintaining our transportation system over the next few years based on the current funding models,” said Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey, a St. Charles Republican.

The Missouri Department of Transportation faces a decline in the state’s construction budget for roads and bridges — from $685 million this year to $325 million in the fiscal year 2017 budget.

The department estimates it needs $485 million annually to maintain all of the state’s 32,000 miles of roads and bridges in their current conditions. To compensate for the expected shortfall, the department has said it plans to fully maintain only one-quarter of the system — its primary routes — while the rest of the state’s roads and bridges are expected to deteriorate.

Voters last year defeated a proposed three-quarters cent sales tax that would have generated $540 million annually for transportation for the next decade. Since then, some lawmakers have been trying to come up with alternatives.

A proposed 2-cent gas tax increase had stalled under opposition from conservative Republicans. But those senators allowed a bill to come to a vote Thursday after it was altered to include a diesel tax higher than the gas tax and a provision was added creating a board to look into tolling along Interstate 70.

Any toll proposal would be subject to approval by the Legislature.

Republican Sen. Rob Schaaf, of St. Joseph, proposed the toll road amendment that also shifted the tax increase more to diesel fuel. He said that allocated the burden more fairly to heavy trucks that did more damage to the roads.

Schaaf still voted against the measure and said he did not want the Legislature to increase taxes without approval by voters.

Dempsey, who voted for the measure along with 10 other Republicans, noted the Legislature has the authority to pass a small tax increase without referring it to the ballot.

The Missouri Constitution includes a cap, adjusted for inflation, on how large of a tax increase the Legislature can enact without voter approval. It’s currently at about $94 million.

The 2-cent increase was projected to allow the state to match all available federal funds in 2017. Estimates for Schaaf’s proposal were not immediately available from the transportation department, but Schaaf said the amount was about the same.

The bill could face additional challenges in the House, where Speaker John Diehl, a Republican from Town and Country, has said it would be difficult to pass any tax increase.