Proposition D fuel tax hike awaits Missouri voters

Drivers refuel in Holts Summit. Missouri voters on Tuesday will decide whether to raise the state's motor fuel tax by 10 cents over the next four years. (Garrett Bergquist/KRCG 13)

A familiar issue will face Missouri voters when they decide the state's ballot issues next week.

Voters on Tuesday will decide whether to raise the state's fuel tax by 2.5 cents a year from 2019 to 2022, for a total increase of 10 cents per gallon. Known as Proposition D, it will be the second time this decade Missouri voters have been asked for more highway funding. Voters in 2014 rejected, by a 60/40 margin, a 3/4-cent increase in the state sales tax that would have gone to highway improvement projects.

In the meantime, several neighboring states have green-lit highway funding programs of their own. Iowa lawmakers approved a 10-cent fuel tax increase in 2015. That same year, Nebraska lawmakers overrode Gov. Pete Ricketts to phase in a 6-cent increase. Arkansas voters approved a half-cent sales tax for highway funding in 2012. Tennessee lawmakers last year passed an infrastructure plan championed by Gov. Bill Haslam that included fuel tax hikes.

Scott Charton, a spokesman for the Proposition D advocacy group, said Missouri's current fuel tax of 17 cents per gallon has remained unchanged since 1996. He said the tax now has the equivalent purchasing power of a 7-cent-per-gallon tax today due to inflation. In the meantime, the cost of construction materials, such as asphalt and steel, has gone up.

"We know we can't run our budgets as businesses or governments without any revenue increase in 22 years," he said.

The ballot language splits the tax revenue between the Highway Patrol and local transportation projects. Charton said the Patrol already gets funding from the existing fuel tax to cover the costs of road enforcement. With new money going to the Patrol, he said that will free up $288 million each year for state highway construction projects. Meanwhile, he said, $123 million would go to cities and counties to fund their own transportation projects. Boone County would get almost $2.8 million, Callaway County would get more than $1.1 million and Cole County would get $1.3 million.

Some drivers said they aren't convinced the tax is a good idea. Justin Hohman said he understands the need for road repairs, but lawmakers should look for ways to better utilize existing revenue sources, such as the lottery. Dennis Heislen said he would only support the fuel tax if it went exclusively to upgrading unpaved county roads. Heislen said lawmakers should consider toll roads instead. State lawmakers have considered toll roads but legislation to authorize them has never made it to a floor vote.

Charton said the tax would cost the average driver about $60 more per year in fuel costs, but that would be offset by other savings. He said car repairs due to potholes and time lost due to congestion add up. Charton said deteriorating roads and bridges cost Missourians an average of $1,400 per year due to those costs. Moreover, he said freight shipments are rising due in part to increasing reliance on e-commerce.

Sharp-eyed voters will notice Proposition D also would create a tax break for Olympic medals, which otherwise would be subject to tax. Charton said that provision is the result of how Proposition D arrived on the ballot. He said lawmakers spent months negotiating over the fuel tax. By the time they had agreed on the language, Charton it was too late to put it into traditional legislation, so lawmakers tacked it on to an existing tax bill, in this case one dealing with Olympic medals.

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