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Voters Defeat Multi-Billion-Dollar Sales Tax Hike for Transportation

The proposed Constitutional Amendment 7 would have funded more than 800 highway and transportation projects.

Wed August 13, 2014 - Midwest Edition

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) Missouri voters defeated a multi-billion-dollar sales tax hike for transportation Aug. 5, a significant setback for highway officials who have warned that the state soon won’t have enough money to repair all of its aging roads and bridges.

The three-quarters cent sales tax headlined a Missouri primary ballot that featured few competitive top-of-the-ticket races but several proposed constitutional amendments, including enhanced rights for farmers, gun owners and cellphone users.

A proposal creating a constitutional right to farm appeared to narrowly pass, with a margin of about 2,500 out of almost 1 million votes cast. The outcome was close enough that a recount could be requested.

Proposed Constitutional Amendment 7 would have funded more than 800 highway and transportation projects, including the widening of Interstate 70 to three lanes in each direction between Kansas City and St. Louis. It was projected to generate at least $540 million annually for 10 years, making it Missouri’s largest-ever tax increase.

But that proved to be too much to accept for Missouri’s generally tax-averse voters.

“I think we’ve got enough taxes already, and I think they need to spend their money more wisely,’’ said Jamie Owenbey a state worker from Jefferson City who voted against the measure.

“There’s not a tax I would vote for — no new taxes at all,’’ added Mike McArthy a self-employed outdoor photographer and writer from Cottleville.

The general sales tax would have marked a historic shift for a state that has relied solely on user fees such as fuel and vehicle taxes to fund its highways for nearly a century. Missouri voters have not passed a tax increase for roads since 1987, though the Legislature approved a gradual fuel tax increase in 1992.

The latest tax proposal was placed on the ballot by the Republican-led Legislature with the support of some Democrats.

Voters had to weigh the need for more road funding — the state’s highway budget is projected to drop to $325 million by 2017 from a recent high of $1.3 billion annually — against the cost of a tax hike that could have pushed the total state and local sales tax to near 10 cents on a dollar in some areas.

Without additional money, the Missouri Department of Transportation has said it soon won’t be able to adequately maintain the state’s roads and bridges, much less undertake major new projects.

State Sen. Mike Kehoe, a former transportation commissioner who supported the tax proposal, said it’s unlikely the Legislature will put forward another transportation funding plan next year. Rather, he said it may take the closure of old bridges or other extreme measures before the state’s transportation needs become apparent to more people.

“The problem’s still there, the system size is still there, the number of bridges are still there, and the funding is still declining,’’ said Kehoe, a Republican from Jefferson City.

State transportation commission Chairman Stephen Miller said he believes Missourians understand the need for more funding, but he said the election shows “there just isn’t any consensus on how to pay for it.’’

Construction contractors, labor unions, engineering firms and others who stood to benefit from increased transportation spending poured more than $4 million into the campaign for the sales tax. They had outspent opponents by a more than 100-to-1 ratio heading into the final weeks of the campaign.

The opposition consisted of general anti-tax activists, as well as others who feared the sales tax could hit the poor the hardest while demanding nothing from heavy highway users such as trucking companies.

The defeat is “an opportunity to continue the conversation and come up with a funding mechanism that makes sense and includes trucks in some fashion,’’ said Thomas R. Shout Jr., a St. Louis consultant who was treasurer of the opposition group.

Missouri voters approved several other proposed constitutional amendments. They overwhelmingly passed a measure adding electronic data, such as cellphones, to the items covered by the state’s existing warrant requirements for police searches and seizures.

Voters also approved a constitutional amendment enhancing the state’s right to bear arms.

The ballot technically featured a race for Missouri auditor, but incumbent Tom Schweich was unopposed in the Republican primary and faced no Democratic opposition. All five of Missouri’s eight U.S. House members who faced primaries defeated challengers with significantly less name recognition and money.

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