Some voters have expressed confusion that Proposition D on the Nov. 6 general election ballot is being promoted as providing more money for Missouri's roads and bridges — but the ballot language says the tax increase will fund "state law enforcement."
Proposition D would add 10 cents to the state's current 17 cents-per-gallon tax on gasoline and diesel fuel sold in the state, with the increase phased in over a four-year period.
Gov. Mike Parson has been traveling the state over the past week promoting the proposal. He told the News Tribune he's gotten a number of questions about it — including questions about why the Highway Patrol is getting money from the proposed fuels tax increase.
"The (state) Constitution's really pretty clear on that, and the way this is written, (the money) has to go to our roads (and) bridges, and it has to go to the infrastructure of this state," Parson told supporters meeting at the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry's Jefferson City headquarters Thursday. "You have a pool of money that's (from) 17 cents currently. You'll have a new pool of money, once this is fully implemented, that is 10 cents (more).
"Somewhere the patrol's going to be funded in there — whether it's the new money or the old money."
That's because Missouri's Constitution already directs money from the state road fund — which gets its money from the fuels tax collections, as well as from motor vehicle registration, driver's license and some other fees — for the "actual cost of the state highway patrol in administering and enforcing any state motor vehicle laws and traffic regulations."
That language means the patrol doesn't get a set percentage of the fuels tax collections each year but gets its "actual costs" paid from the road fund.
Capt. John Hotz, head of the Highway Patrol's public information office, told the News Tribune earlier this month that, in the current state budget year (that began July 1 and ends June 30, 2019), the patrol is set to receive $254,247,164.
If voters approve the 10-cent tax increase, it's estimated the Highway Patrol will get about $288 million a year when the full 10 cents is being collected starting in July 2022.
But, with inflation, it's estimated that will be about the amount of the patrol's "actual costs."
Parson noted the additional money won't go to the patrol's Division of Drug and Crime Control or other law-enforcement or criminal investigation operations.
"It has to go to the patrolmen who are actually working the roads, who are making them safe," the governor said.
The main point, he said, is raising the fuels tax "will make more money available for the roads" because dedicating the fuels tax increase to the patrol's work means money the patrol currently gets from the fuels tax will be available for road and bridge work.
Mike Wright, representing the AAA-Automobile Club of Missouri, told the News Tribune he also is hearing from some people who have been confused.
"It's all positive," Wright said. "At the end of the day, there will be more money for the Highway Patrol and for the state road fund, as well as for the local streets and roads."
Parson said Missourians should note "how much of this money is going to be (paid) by out-of-state people, who come across our state.
"Almost 25-30 percent of this will probably be paid by people from outside the state of Missouri, who are coming across our state," as they stop to refuel their vehicles.
Dan Mehan, president and CEO of the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said Missouri benefits from being "the intersection of the country, of the continent. So we should be the logistics and distribution center not just for the Midwest, but for the whole country."
That requires better roads and bridges, Mehan said.
Since he became governor June 1, when former Gov. Eric Greitens resigned, Parson said he's been focusing on two main issues — infrastructure and workforce development.
"If Missouri is to move forward, those two elements will be a key to the future of who we are," he explained.
Everybody wants good infrastructure, the governor said, "but unfortunately, for the last 22 years, we haven't done anything about it."
Missouri's current fuels tax — 17 cents per gallon — was set in 1996.
Since then, Parson said, politicians and state leaders have continued to "kick this can down the road" and not solve Missouri's highway funding issues.
"The reality of it is we've got problems out there," the governor said.
He noted the Missouri Department of Transportation is especially concerned with the condition of about 1,000 bridges — out of more than 10,000 throughout Missouri — that are "considered poor or even to the point where some of them, in my opinion, are getting to be in unsafe conditions. When you to put nets underneath bridges to catch debris coming off of them, that's a problem."
About 15 years ago, voters approved Amendment 3, which allowed MoDOT to sell bonds for road repairs — and a number of improvements were made to some of the state's busiest highways.
But that amendment shifted existing money and didn't change the 17 cents-per-gallon fuels tax.
"We can't not invest in our roads for 15 or 20 years and expect them to get better or to be maintained," Mehan said.
Parson said another selling point of Proposition D is the continued distribution of 30 percent of the money from the state road fund to Missouri's counties and cities, where local officials "actually have control of where that money goes."
While the percentage will remain at 15 percent for counties and 15 percent for cities, the pool of money will be bigger.
County commissioners and city officials throughout the state, Parson said, will "decide how that money is spent in their own hometowns."
Mehan said, if voters reject the proposal, "It takes us back, if we don't invest in this as an asset. This is a step forward. Is it the end-all? No. But once we're able to do this, we help MoDOT be able to take care of the roadways that we have and expand where we need to."