Missourians to decide on sales tax for highways

State lawmakers green-lit a ballot proposal that would raise the state sales tax by 3/4 of a percent to pay for road repairs. Voters would have final say over the idea.

Missouri voters will have final say over whether the state raises its sales tax to pay for road maintenance after lawmakers approved the measure Wednesday afternoon.

The measure would ask voters whether to raise the state's sales and use taxes by three-quarters of a cent. Food and prescription medications would be exempt from the increase. Officials estimate the move would provide about $534 million per year in revenue beginning in 2015. That extra money would be restricted to transportation projects, such as highway and bridge repairs, mass transit, bicycle and pedestrian walkways and transportation for the elderly and handicapped. Five percent of the money would be set aside for use by the state's 114 counties for their own transportation projects, while another five percent would be diverted to cities, towns and villages.

Wednesday's vote came more than a year after the effort was launched by Sen. Mike Kehoe, R-Jefferson City, and then-Sen. Ryan McKenna, D-Crystal City. The measure nearly passed in the spring of 2013 but was defeated by a last-minute filibuster by Senate fiscal conservatives. St. Clair Republican Rep. Dave Hinson, who sponsored the final version of the proposal approved Wednesday, said he was relieved to finally get it through the legislature. He said the next step would be convincing Missourians to vote for the measure.

"There's a lot of roads and bridges that can't carry the weights that some of the trucks need to, and there's a constant fight between the General Assembly and MoDOT each year with raising those limits," he said. "If we can repair those roads and bridges, MoDOT will be able to accept those trucks with those heavier weights on it."

The recent vote overriding Gov. Jay Nixon's veto of an income tax cut cast a pall over the sales tax proposal debate in recent weeks. A number of Democrats said the two measures put together would unfairly shift the tax burden toward lower-income Missourians. Rep. Clem Smith, D-St. Louis, voted against the proposal for that reason. He said the legislature should have instead left the income tax brackets alone and redirected the revenue toward transportation projects.

"(My constituents) think it's kind of talking with a split tongue," he told KRCG 13. "You can't raise taxes and then cut them at the same time. They were thinking, why not just transfer the money over to transportation and we could get them done."

Columbia Democrat Stephen Webber said he had serious misgivings about the tax burden as well, though he ultimately voted for the proposal.

"I think people deserve a chance to vote on a transportation plan," he said.

The proposal would appear on the November 2014 ballot unless Gov. Jay Nixon moves it to an earlier election. If voters approve the tax, it would automatically go away after ten years unless voters re-approve it.