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Perspective: Transportation tax among bills filed

Since the beginning of session I have been asked repeatedly how many bills I have filed and why I do not pre-file bills on December 1. My sincere answer is that Missouri already has too many laws on the books and I believe that every bill we consider and pass should be necessary. Lots of problems and lots of issues can be resolved without legislation, and I believe that is the preferred route. However, some issues do necessitate legislation in order to move the conversation forward and to bring about substantive change. This year I have filed six bills. Of these six, two meet the informal criteria of being classified as ‘major legislation’ because they address substantive topics that impact nearly every Missourian.

SB673 is the first bill I filed. If passed, it will bring about long overdue changes and improvements to Missouri’s unemployment law. When the national economy hit the skids in 2008, Missouri, like many other states, borrowed money from the federal government to cover an influx of unemployment claims. We are still paying on this debt to the federal government. Because Missouri did not repay the balance of the debt by 2011, Missouri employers have had a compounding per-employee penalty imposed upon them every year. In 2012, this penalty was $21/per employee. In 2013, the penalty rose to $42/employee, jumping again this year to $63/employee. The debt balance is scheduled to be paid off in 2015, but not before employers pay a penalty of $84/employee for that final year. This continual escalation inhibits growth, particularly in small to mid-sized businesses.

SB673 has two components. First, in order to help prevent Missouri from finding itself in this situation again, it will tie the number of weeks an employee can gain benefits to the unemployment rate. The higher the unemployment rate is, the longer an individual can receive benefits, up to the current 20 weeks of benefits. Similarly, the lower the unemployment rate, the shorter the term of benefits. Second, SB673 requires the state to bond the outstanding loan balance to the federal government. The interest rates on bonds are likely to be 1 percent to 1.5 percent lower than the 2.6 percent rate we are currently paying to the federal government. With these lower interest rates, current assessment rates can be maintained until the balance is paid off, thereby preventing employers from experiencing continued spikes in rates per employee.

The second piece of legislation with statewide impact is SJR48. SJR48 is identical to SJR16 I filed last year to put a temporary one-cent sales tax on the November 2014 ballot. Since filing this legislation on Monday, I have been asked multiple times why I would take the risk of doing so in an election year. My response is that a politician would not, but that I am not a politician. This issue is important to Missourians and is critical to our state’s future and I am not going to shy away from it simply because it is an election year. As was the case last year, Rep. Dave Hinson, is of similar conviction and has filed identical language in the House.

I believed last year, and I am all the more persuaded now, that Missouri’s transportation infrastructure is at a perilous juncture. This juncture requires a funding solution to both maintain the current system and make necessary improvements. When opponents filibustered the bipartisan resolution last year, a resolution which manifested years of work by MoDOT and stakeholders from across the state, they did not change the basic fact that Missouri has 32,000 miles of roads and 10,400 bridges in our transportation system that need to be maintained and improved.

As I travel throughout the district, I am asked daily about roads and jobs. Whether it is rebuilding I-70 or expanding the shoulder on a lettered highway, Missourians understand that transportation infrastructure is critical to our economy and to the safety of their families. I have yet to have anyone tell me that Missouri’s transportation infrastructure does not need to be maintained and improved, nor have I met anyone that can legitimately contend that MoDOT does not have a significant funding gap. Overwhelmingly, people tell me that they are willing to invest in transportation infrastructure as long as there is accountability for the money and transparency on the projects and timelines. SJR48 provides safe-guards to ensure that stakeholders and planning partners have input and that MoDOT is held accountable for projects, timelines and the responsible use of tax dollars.

MoDOT is far from being an “out of control” state entity that is reckless with your tax dollars. On the contrary, MoDOT has downsized and become more efficient in an effort to maximize the amount of money available to be invested in transportation projects. In 2009, MoDOT’s yearly construction budget was $1.3 billion. In 2014, that same construction budget is $700 million, with continued falling projections to $325 million in 2017. Most of this decline can be attributed to reliance on the broken fuel tax model … a model that gets more and more unsustainable as car-makers produce, and consumers demand, increasingly fuel efficient vehicles. The proposed funding plan would generate approximately $8 billion over the next 10 years. This will fund projects across the state and put tens of thousands of Missourians to work in good, high-paying, family-supporting jobs. I look forward to this issue being on the ballot for Missourians to decide how they want to invest their tax dollars in transportation.

As I have committed to you many times, I will not vote for, or allow, a building full of politicians to vote to raise your taxes. I believe you should have that right and opportunity. My fear is that since the problem with our transportation system is not going away, there could be a day and time after I am gone that a future legislature makes these decisions for you; that would be a very bad thing. I want you to decide.

My purpose and my intent is to serve the constituents of the 6th Senatorial District. If you are in the Capitol during the coming weeks and months, please stop by your office in Room 220.

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