Legislature uneasy with MoDOT, seeks to change longstanding funding process

Photograph courtesy of Tim Bommel/Missouri House of Representatives: Members of the Joint Committee on Transportation Oversight listen in February 2023 as MoDOT Director Patrick McKenna delivers the annual report of pending applications for memorial highway and bridge designations along with other items.

Missouri lawmakers have openly decried the lack of authority they have over the Missouri Department of Transportation.

One of two state agencies with its own tax revenue structure, MoDOT has come under fire for attempting to give its employees raises after legislators increased the state tax on motor fuel, which largely goes to support MoDOT. Tension between the department and lawmakers has propelled legislation to put the State Road Fund under control of the Legislature.

House Joint Resolution 37 is a constitutional amendment to require the State Road Fund be subject to General Assembly appropriation rather than "stand appropriated without legislative action," as it currently states in the Missouri Constitution. The resolution would also require the department's five-year Statewide Transportation Improvement Program establish funding priorities. If passed by the General Assembly, the measure would be subject to voter approval.

Rep. Don Mayhew, a Crocker Republican, described his resolution as a simple one intended to promote accountability over MoDOT.

"While there may have been some reason for that (language) in the past, that's been 62 years ago, more or less, and that reason is probably gone," Mayhew told his colleagues on the House floor.

Mayhew said he likely wouldn't have filed his resolution if MoDOT didn't file its lawsuit over pay raises.

"This action has forced our hand, ladies and gentlemen," he told his fellow members of the House. "If we don't take action now and the courts should find that they are correct, that they stand appropriated with no interference from the Legislature, then there will be no oversight save what is built into the commission process."

In 2021, the Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission filed a lawsuit seeking declaratory judgment on whether or not the department had the authority to pay for employee pay raises from the State Road Fund.

The raises were approved by the commission but denied by the Office of Administration, who cited a lack of constitutional authority because they weren't appropriated by the Legislature. The agencies took the case to court to seek a judge's ruling on whether or not MoDOT had authority to spend without legislative action.

The case, last heard in February 2022, is awaiting a decision from Cole County Circuit Judge Cotton Walker.

News of the lawsuit prompted six Republican lawmakers, including the senator now serving as majority floor leader, to send a letter to the commission asking for the resignation of MoDOT Director Patrick McKenna.

The Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission is a six-member bipartisan board responsible for overseeing MoDOT. Its members are appointed by the governor, confirmed by the Missouri Senate and serve six year terms. No more than three commissioners can be from the same political party.

Responsibility for building Missouri's highways shifted from local governments to the state with the passage of the Centennial Road Law in 1920. The law empowered the commission to create and maintain a state highway system, make rules governing its own organization and purchase and lease land, among other responsibilities.

Legislation establishing the State Road Fund dates back to the 1960s and was amended by voters in 1979 and 2004, according to state statutes. The fund can be used to buy materials and equipment related to transportation construction and "to employ such personnel as necessary," according to state statute.

MoDOT Director Patrick McKenna testified in opposition to HJR 37. He said he believes it was the intent of Missourians who passed the constitutional amendment to remove politics from transportation project selection processes.

In his testimony, McKenna said the resolution before the Legislature would prevent the department from putting dollars behind long-range plans.

MoDOT has about 650 active projects on any given day, McKenna said. Under the proposal, he said the department would have to seek legislative approval if any of those projects are changed, which could be "several hundred times."

McKenna said the move would constrain the industry, limit competition and raise prices for construction. Without certainty that projects would be completed, he said the department would limit planning and the type of work it does.

"We'd be the department of paving instead of the Highway and Transportation Commission and MoDOT," he said.

Mayhew, who serves as chairman of the House Transportation Accountability Committee and co-chair of the Joint Committee on Transportation Oversight, said the Legislature can fund MoDOT's long-range plans on an annual basis as it has done with individual transportation improvement projects. If MoDOT gets a favorable ruling in court, he said the department wouldn't have to show up to legislative budget hearings unless they want additional funding from the state's general revenue fund.

Budget hearings are legislators' only opportunity to provide oversight over executive departments, Mayhew said.

"With these enormous sums that we're talking about, I think it's imperative that the people have a say in how it's spent," he said.

McKenna said the commission is the primary body charged with providing oversight over the department but MoDOT still appears before the General Assembly for budget hearings. And more than 1,200 people are currently involved in project selection through local transportation advisory committees, he said.

Rep. Steve Butz, D-St. Louis, voiced his opposition to the resolution, adding it is "dramatically changing how we fund highways and bridges in this state."

Butz said the commission has a long-term view of Missouri's transportation needs and is designed to be a bipartisan body with an equal number of Democrats and Republicans. Taking away its power to use the State Road Fund would put transportation planning and development in the hands of partisan lawmakers.

"These programs that MoDOT has to implement take many, many, many years. It cannot be left up to the annual or bi-annual appropriation process of this body," Butz said. "You know we go through those budget fights; you know how hard it is. MoDOT funding should not be tied to that."

Rep. Rudy Veit, a Wardsville Republican and member of the House Transportation Accountability Committee, said the commission was created to keep transportation projects safe from "pork-barrel politics."

Veit noted about a quarter of lawmakers in the House are replaced every two years and many transportation projects take longer than that. If MoDOT doesn't have the authority to commit dollars to completing a long-term project, Veit said it has the potential to scare off contractors.

"I appreciate that we should have some oversight and input, and they ought to be here listening more," Veit said. "But to micro-manage the budget so that we can't do long-term planning, and we bring all the individual people into it, I find kind of challenging."

When presenting his bill to committee, Mayhew said legislators are elected "for the sole purpose of being the people's voice in this building, especially where money is concerned." He asked what checks and balances are in place with commission agencies.

Rep. Peter Merideth, D-St. Louis, said Mayhew's proposal doesn't offer a check on the department's power.

"I think this is a short-sighted approach to a fight that is happening right now," Merideth said. "And frankly, I think what we've seen in that fight illustrates part of the problem here."

"It sounds to me like folks are mad at MoDOT and now want to take away their money, and that's all this bill gives us the authority to do," he continued.

Merideth, the ranking minority member of the House Budget Committee, said the "stands appropriated" language in the Constitution effectively bars the Legislature from taking money away from funding sources dedicated for road and bridge repairs. The Legislature already has the power to increase MoDOT funding, he noted.

Merideth said the resolution isn't holding the department accountable as voters are asking lawmakers to do.

"They want us to be able to pass laws about MoDOT, which we can," he said. "What I don't think I've heard from voters is that they want us to strip them of money that was directed to (MoDOT) in the Constitution."

Merideth said the House Budget Chair has told departments over the last couple years to cover raises with expenses saved from vacant positions, which is what MoDOT did.

If the department's plan was to introduce pay raises, Mayhew said, it should have been part of the discussions around increasing the gas tax.

In the five years she's been on the budget committee, Rep. Deb Lavender, D-Manchester, said MoDOT has always asked for pay raises for its employees. Lawmakers have never provided it.

She said the department spends roughly $50 million on finding and training employees each year while the raise it asked for was $15 million.

"I've never quite understood why we throw away $35 million a year for them to continuously find and train employees who keep leaving," she said. "They leave because we don't pay them enough, so if we paid them more money, perhaps they would just stay."

Lavender pointed out that the Missouri Department of Conservation is organized under a similar structure as MoDOT but there are not similar efforts to make it subject to legislative appropriations. She said the General Assembly should wait for a court ruling before acting on legislation.

Butz said MoDOT routinely showed lawmakers it was underfunded when it advocated for an increase to the gas tax.

Rep. Barbara Phifer, D-Kirkwood, questioned how Mayhew's resolution would improve the state. Transportation is a highly technical field, and the appointed highway commissioners are usually better experts than members of the House, she said.

"Evidently in the past ... the people who went before us thought there needed to be a bit of a separation, probably so that -- I'm assuming -- regions that are more rural would have a little bit more power," Phifer said. "I am concerned that our rural areas might end up with the short end of the stick on this."

Tension with MoDOT threatens to upend a major proposal for Interstate 70, lawmakers said.

Gov. Mike Parson announced a plan to expand about 50 miles of I-70 during his State of the State Address in January. The $859 million project, expected to be funded entirely by general revenue, would impact stretches of suburban Kansas City, St. Louis and Columbia. The Legislature first appropriated general revenue funds for a transportation project a couple years ago so the state could draw down federal dollars for the Rocheport Bridge.

Mayhew said the commission creates head-scratching requests from the state's general revenue fund, "not the least of which is this I-70 thing."

Senate President Pro Tem Caleb Rowden told reporters Thursday he's hopeful the Interstate 70 expansion project comes to fruition this session but he understands the concerns surrounding MoDOT.

"We'll see what the House puts in their budget, relative to the governor's proposed budget..." Rowden said. "The Senate is certainly interested in doing something."

Rowden said he understands the concerns of lawmakers, describing MoDOT as a "bloated and unaccountable bureaucracy," but the needs of Missourians should outweigh them. Drivers need a safe, expanded highway through the state, he said.

By making progress on I-70, Rowden said other major transportation projects, like Interstate 44, move forward on the state's agenda.

"If we don't do it this year, we are not going to do it," he said.

  photo  Ryan Pivoney/News Tribune photo: Senate Majority Floor Leader Cindy O'Laughlin, R-Shelbina, and President Pro Tem Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, address reporters Thursday, March 2, 2023, in the Senate Mezzanine. Rowden said lawmaker concerns about the Missouri Department of Transportation threaten to upend a major expansion of Interstate 70.
HJR 37: Proposes a constitutional amendment modifying provisions relating to revenue derived from highway users that is deposited into the state road fund

More News



Sponsor: Rep. Don Mayhew, R-Crocker