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Senators renew road-and-bridge funding debate

Senators renew road-and-bridge funding debate

March 15th, 2019 by Bob Watson in Local News

Missouri’s lawmakers are heading into next week’s spring break with no clear agreement on Gov. Mike Parson’s proposal to use bonds to pay for improving or replacing critical bridges across the state.

Shortly before lawmakers ended their session for the week, state Sen. Bill Eigel on Thursday promised “to put forth some proposals of how (we) can get more resources into our road network.”

Though he didn’t offer specifics, Eigel, R-Weldon Spring, said his ideas “could be (using) existing revenues.”

Missouri’s Constitution says the state’s roads-and-bridges system is to be funded through “a tax upon or measured by fuel used for propelling highway motor vehicles.”

Currently, that tax is 17.35 cents for each gallon of gasoline or motor fuel sold in the state. Voters last November rejected a proposal to increase that by 10-cents a gallon over four years.

The constitutional language doesn’t prohibit other sources of revenue for roads and bridges and, in the past, Eigel has supported the use of some general revenue funding for improving the state’s highway system.

But Sen. Doug Libla, R-Poplar Bluff, questioned Eigel’s opposition to raising the fuels tax, which Libla said is “the only way that we have, to get the funds that we need to build our highways and bridges with. … We don’t sell T-shirts. We don’t sell caps.”

Libla said MoDOT “has done a pretty good job” of maintaining Missouri’s highway system — which is the nation’s seventh largest — “when the department has not had an increase in 23 years, even though asphalt’s tripled, concrete’s tripled, steel’s tripled (and even) toilet paper is 300-and-some percent up since 1996,” which was when the current fuel tax level went into effect.

Libla added: “It’s unreasonable to think (that) they have had absolutely zero extra dollars to take care of our 21st century maintenance needs.”

Their comments came during the Senate’s debate on a supplemental appropriations bill for the state’s current business year, that ends June 30.

The Senate made some changes to the original, House-passed version of the bill, so it must go back to the House — and a conference committee if the House doesn’t accept the Senate changes.

Eigel noted: “With the passage of this supplement, we will complete the largest fiscal year ever in the state of Missouri.

“In other words, we will spend more of the taxpayers’ dollars than we’ve ever spent in a single fiscal year, ever before in the history of this state.”

And the fiscal conservative promised to keep fighting proposals “to raise taxes on the people of Missouri. … Just because a tax is low is not necessarily a reason to raise it.”

Parson asked the Legislature to approve a bond package that would raise around $350 million to repair or replace some of the state’s worst bridges, paying off those bonds over a 15-year period using $30 million each year from general revenue.

The idea has met opposition, with the House Budget committee instead proposing a straight $100 million a year from general revenue, to do a few bridges each year.

But the full House still must debate the proposed budget, before sending it to the Senate.

Senate President Pro Tem Dave Schatz told reporters Thursday the governor’s idea isn’t dead, yet.

“I think that we’re getting close to something where we could have an agreement,” Schatz, R-Sullivan, said. “I think there’s an opportunity for us to have that conversation (and) make that investment.”

He said bonding is “a part that makes sense” and allows the state to have income that can be used to match available federal dollars.

Still, Schatz said, a fuels tax increase “probably would be the best and (most efficient) way for us to address our (highway) funding needs here in Missouri. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to pass that” last November.

Senate Minority Leader Gina Walsh, D-Bellefontaine Neighbors, agreed the fuels tax is the best approach, “but the citizens of Missouri said no.”

She said Parson is offering a “different way” to address critical needs bridges, “and now he’s finding out that his way is not moving as quickly as he would like. But he is doing what people have asked him to do — to find a different way.”

She said she looks forward to the discussion that will occur when lawmakers return March 25.