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10th Senate District candidates split on gas tax

by Ryan Pivoney | July 20, 2022 at 4:02 a.m.
Bryan Spencer

The five Republicans vying for Missouri's 10th Senate District have a range of views on the state's recent gas tax increase, which has come under fire as gas prices have dramatically escalated over the past few months.

State Reps. Travis Fitzwater, R-Holts Summit, and Jeff Porter, R-Montgomery City, are running for the seat, as is former state Rep. Bryan Spencer, R-Wentzville, and Wentzville Judge Mike Carter. Joshua Price, an auto shop worker from Mexico, Missouri, lives outside the district but has also filed to run.

Those five Republicans are competing for the party nomination decided by the Aug. 2 primary election, after which the nominee will face Libertarian candidate Catherine Dreher in the Nov. 8 general election. Sen. Jeanie Riddle, R-Mokane, currently holds the office but faces term limits and cannot run for re-election.

Throughout the campaign season, the price of gasoline and the recent increase to the state's tax on it have come up. While some of the Republican candidates want the increase repealed, others want it suspended or left alone.

Lawmakers in 2021 passed a 12.5 cent increase to the state's gas tax, which is implemented in 2.5-cent increments for five years. Two parts have taken effect so far, increasing the state's gas tax from 17 cents per gallon to 22 cents per gallon. The revenue it generates goes to support infrastructure repairs.

Porter, who is chairman of the House Transportation Committee, said he doesn't necessarily like the tax but said it's the best way to maintain and expand state infrastructure, so he supports it.

"We need to have some way of funding the program," Porter said. "I've never seen anybody -- and I'm 60 years old -- I've never seen anybody come up with any other kind of program to have some kind of flow of revenue to take care of the issues that we've got about the roads."

The sudden rise in gas prices wasn't a result of the tax increase, Porter said, but the funding it generates is necessary to keep projects steadily moving forward. He pointed to the poor condition of rural lettered routes and capacity issues along Interstate 70 as areas that can be addressed with revenues from the gas tax increase.

Federal relief dollars will eventually run out, Porter said, and the state needs a way to sustain infrastructure repairs.

Porter, who was mayor of Montgomery City for 15 years, said the gas tax is critical for municipalities and counties, which get 15 percent of the revenue it generates. During the legislative process, the tax increase was also supported by the trucking industry, farmers and top Republican leadership, such as Gov. Mike Parson and Senate President Pro Tem Dave Schatz, R-Sullivan.

He said the provision that allows taxpayers to opt out of the tax increase improved the program and ought to reduce debate on the issue.

"It should eliminate the bullying, but we've still got the bullying because they don't want people to pay anything," Porter said. "Well for those of us like me, I want to make sure we have the roads. I will pay the tax gladly."

Price said he's against the gas tax increase, primarily because of the way the refund provision was established.

The provision requires taxpayers to keep fuel receipts for up to three years and submit a refund form annually, which Price said isn't feasible.

"That's not something for low income or middle class families. That's something that hurts them," he said.

Price said the refund provision was seemingly added to gather enough support for the tax increase to become law.

"If we're going to do a rebate on it, we need to do it in a better way," he said.

Spencer, who spent six years on the House Budget Committee, voted against the gas tax increase each time it was in front of him. He said he would support repealing the tax increase altogether, restoring the state tax on gasoline back to 17 cents per gallon.

"We have so many feel-good programs that are not a function of government," Spencer said. "I feel that we can fund our roads and bridges if we just get rid of the programs, the feel-good, earmarked programs, that are not a function of government."

Spencer pointed to the Missouri Scholars Academy, a three-week residential summer program for gifted high school juniors, as one of the programs he would seek to cut. He said several more programs are "riddled throughout the budget."

In addition to the gas tax increase, Spencer said he would support eliminating Missouri's income tax and phasing out or finding a substitute for the state's personal property tax.

"The gas tax is a usage tax," he said. "I was OK with the 17-cent tax, but instead of curbing our spending we just ask for more money or take more money (from taxpayers)."

Fitzwater also voted against the gas tax increase in 2021, noting voters across the state voted the measure down at the ballot box a few years ago.

"I thought that was proof enough for us as a Legislature to not take it up again two years later and say the will of the people was different than what we did," Fitzwater said at the News Tribune election forum July 12.

Fitzwater said the timing of the gas tax increase was "unfortunate" as it correlates with rising oil prices. The state has record levels of revenue, he said, and it should be prioritizing infrastructure projects with those dollars.

Fitzwater introduced a bill last legislative session to create a six-month pause on the gas tax, which would've suspended all state tax on fuel, not just the recent increase. It was one of nearly 15 pieces of legislation aimed at the gas tax last session.

"You don't need to raise taxes," he said. "We should be reducing taxes because our general revenues are at record highs."

Fitzwater said he supports shuffling around existing state funds to cover transportation project costs and cut state taxes.

Carter is also in support of suspending the gas tax. According to his campaign website, the Wentzville judge and businessman is committed to pausing the tax until gas prices decline. He did not return requests for clarification on his position.

Proposals to pause or suspend the gas tax are troubling because they simply kick Missouri's infrastructure issues down the road further, Porter said. Inflation and project costs grow over time, he explained, so pausing revenue for a year or longer would exacerbate deteriorating road conditions and make the cost to fix them greater.

"It's either we pay now or pay it later," Porter said. "I'm afraid if we pay later it's going to be higher."

The 10th Senate District stretches from Callaway County to the eastern side of the state, dipping down to include Wentzville and across to the state border in Pike and Lincoln counties.

  photo  Travis Fitzwater
  photo  Jeff Porter
  photo  Mike Carter (submitted photo)
  photo  Joshua Price (submitted photo)


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