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Appeals court tosses challenge to proposed fuels tax

Appeals court tosses challenge to proposed fuels tax

September 5th, 2018 by Bob Watson in Local News

A man pumps gas Tuesday at a local station.

Photo by Mark Wilson /News Tribune.

The Missouri Court of Appeals in Kansas City ruled Tuesday that voters should have a chance to approve a proposed fuels tax increase before the courts can hear any challenge to it.

Ron Calzone, of Dixon, expects to appeal that ruling, after the appeals court said he and state Rep. Mike Moon, R-Ash Grove, were too early in their challenge to having a statewide vote on a 10-cents-per-gallon increase in Missouri's fuels taxes.

And the group supporting the proposed increase said it was "moving ahead" with its information campaign.

Lawmakers in May approved the proposed fuels tax increase, sending it to voters for final approval — and it won't go into effect without that approval.

If a majority of Missourians agree, the state would increase its tax — currently 17 cents on the sale of each gallon of gasoline or diesel fuel — by 2.5 cents each year for a four-year period.

But Moon and Calzone asked the Cole County Circuit Court to block the statewide vote, arguing the Legislature violated constitutional procedures when it passed House Bill 1406 — so the proposal shouldn't be placed on the Nov. 6 ballot.

Among their arguments was that the final bill, including the statewide fuels tax vote, was different from the bill's original purpose, which was a tax credit for Olympic medal winners.

They also argued the changes made to the bill during the legislative process violated the Constitution's restriction "no bill shall contain more than one subject."

After an Aug. 7 hearing, Osage County Associate Circuit Judge Rob Schollmeyer, acting as a special judge for Cole County, dismissed the case, ruling Aug. 14: "(The bill's) original purpose was to regulate Missouri's revenue laws. The changes to House Bill 1460 do not clearly and undoubtedly violate the constitutional limitation on changes to a bill's original purpose."

And, Schollmeyer wrote, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled in 2001 that "a bill's original purpose can be ascertained without reference to the original title, itself," and that a court's inquiry about a bill's purpose "focuses on what broader purpose does the bill, as introduced, serve to accomplish?"

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In a nine-page opinion written by Judge Victor C. Howard, the three-judge appeals court panel said Tuesday that Schollmeyer issued the wrong ruling, and should have said the case wasn't ready to be heard until after the election.

"The constitutional and statutory provisions relating to the procedure and form of referendums ordered by the general assembly do not support pre-election review of (Calzone's and Moon's) challenges," Howard wrote. "And because H.B. 1460 may never be enacted by voters, "appellants' claims are not ripe" — that is, not ready to be heard by the courts.

Among its findings, the appeals court said, while Calzone and Moon were correct that Missouri's Constitution provides "procedural limitations on the legislative process, challenges under these sections require review of the language of the bills themselves rather than the procedures followed to enact them. Furthermore pre-election challenges are limited to claims that the procedures for submitting a proposal to the voters were not followed."

The appeals court ordered Calzone's and Moon's case to be dismissed "without prejudice," meaning they can file it again later — after the Nov. 6 election.

In a statement for the group SaferMO.com, which supports the fuels tax increase, spokesman Scott Charton said: "Missouri is losing ground on road and bridge progress because of the eroded purchasing power of the state motor fuels user tax that was last raised 22 years ago. That 17 cents motor fuels user tax is today worth 7 cents, while the number of highway lanes in the nation's seventh-largest state road system has increased by 6,200 miles."

He predicted Missouri voters will approve the tax increase proposal, which is on the ballot as Proposition D.

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