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story.lead_photo.caption JD Drinkard fills up the Scruggs Lumber company truck Thursday at Jefferson Street Conoco. Gov. Mike Parson has floated the idea of a gas or use tax to fund Missouri's highways and bridges. Photo by Julie Smith / News Tribune.

Gov. Mike Parson on Thursday said although they haven't had a lot to work with, his administration and state lawmakers have accomplished a surprising number of improvements to infrastructure over the past couple of years.

About two years ago, despite a tight budget, lawmakers passed a bonding bill intended to pay for repairing or replacing more than 200 bridges. Those bonds were dependent on the federal government awarding a grant to help replace the Interstate 70 bridge over the Missouri River at Rocheport. Crews completed more than 100 of the bridge projects over the past year. The Rocheport project is set to begin this year.

"We're doing extremely well with what we've got, but we need to do a lot more," Parson told Missouri Press Association members and reporters Thursday.

Reporters asked the governor about Senate Bill 262, sponsored by state Sen. Dave Schatz, R-Franklin County. The bill would send to the ballot a referendum to increase the state's excise tax on motor fuel by 2 cents per gallon each year over the next five years — increasing the tax from 17 cents to 27 cents.

"We've got to do something for transportation in this state," Parson said. "I'm not sure what that combination looks like, but I'm a supporter of doing something through the use tax at the fuel pumps."

The state must do something to improve its infrastructure, state Rep. Rudy Veit, R-Wardsville, said. It cannot have good development without improved infrastructure.

If lawmakers don't do something to pay for infrastructure, they're kicking the can down the road and leaving debt for their children and grandchildren, Veit said.

"The only thing I hate worse than a tax is passing my debt down to my kids and grandkids," he said.

Parson said he understands if lawmakers want to find out how their constituents feel about the tax.

If he had his way, Parson would like to see the legislators increase the tax.

"I think it's their job," he continued.

Building infrastructure, such as roads and bridges, supports jobs, farms, growth and improvement, said Rep. Sara Walsh, R-Ashland. As a fiscal conservative, Walsh said, she voted for legislation that put a gas tax on the ballot in 2018.

However, 53.6 percent of voters opposed the increases.

The jury is still out on why voters said no, Walsh said.

Some Missourians, she said, didn't want any more taxes, some thought 10 cents was too high, and others didn't like the ballot language.

"I'm not making a commitment on the Legislature raising a gas tax until I see the actual language and hear feedback from my constituents," Walsh said.

Sen. Mike Bernskoetter, R-Jefferson City, has been in the Legislature during two efforts to raise the gas tax. One was eight or 10 years ago, while the other was in 2018, he said.

He voted for the last one, but it failed.

"I don't think putting it on the ballot a third time is going to make a difference," Bernskoetter said. "If the governor said to do it on our own, that's the way to do it."

That would make some people unhappy, he continued.

"It would be a tough decision. Sometimes you've got to make tough decisions," Bernskoetter said.

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Pay raise on the table for Missouri lawmakers

Another issue reporters asked Parson about Thursday was pay raises for statewide elected officials. This came hours before the House voted on a bill to stop the raises, the Associated Press reported, but the votes came a few short of the two-thirds majority needed. The Citizens' Commission on Compensation recommends the raises, which automatically take effect unless blocked.

The failure to block means legislator salaries are to increase by 5 percent over the next two years. They were making $35,915 annually, plus $119 per day for per diem pay before the vote. Their pay is to increase by about $1,800.

Parson said he supports "some sort of adjustment" to pay so the question doesn't have to go to the legislative body to make the decision.

"I don't know if that's a cost-of-living increase like everybody else or if you want to tie it to something," Parson said. "The reality is, you've got to have a way of getting good people up here for representation."

When the pay is less than $36,000 a year for those jobs and they keep people away from home, a lot of talent may not find the jobs worthwhile, he said.

Local lawmakers were divided on the possibility of cost-of-living increases for state employees.

"That would be a great thing to do — put it in the budget like funding the Foundation Formula," Bernskoetter said. "But there are so many state representatives and senators who don't have a huge amount of state employees in their districts. It's tough to convince them."

Walsh said she couldn't in good conscience vote for pay raises for statewide elected officials and lawmakers while Missourians and state employees are facing economic difficulties because of COVID-19.

Unlike other jobs, the temporary job of being a lawmaker opens up opportunities, she said.

"Most Missourians do not have the influence and connections that we have, and that is another reason I will continue to put myself at the end of the line at every opportunity — whether it has to do with pay, or vaccines, or food lines at events or whatever," she said.

State employee pay is researched, proposed and considered regularly, she continued.

"I do not support automatic increases because, here in Missouri, we are constitutionally obligated to maintain a balanced budget," Walsh said. "The fiscal situation changes year to year, and so I am a strong supporter of everything in our budget being 'subject to appropriations' to maintain flexibility so that the state can live within its means and can balance changing priorities and needs every single year."

It is always unpopular for lawmakers to vote for pay raises for themselves, Veit said.

"If we don't raise salaries, the only people who will run for the Legislature will be retired, wealthy, or right out of school and doing their first jobs," Veit said. "It will exclude those people who do have experience."

Raises would help the state maintain a good cross-section of representatives, he continued.

He doesn't need a raise, Veit said, because he's semi-retired.

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