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Monday, April 15, 2019

Senator Ed Emery- The Road to Compromise

“Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable — the art of the next best.” ― Otto von Bismarck, Prussian statesman.

Highway maintenance is a major concern for state government, but the issue took on added importance this year as the governor identified transportation investment as one of two top priorities of his administration. In January, he called on the Legislature to approve a proposal that would accelerate planned repairs to 250 bridges throughout the state. The $350 million effort would be financed through bonds, to be repaid over 15 years. Money previously allocated for the bridge projects could then be used for other transportation improvements. Borrowing money goes against the grain for many of us in the legislature, and the governor acknowledged that his proposal was unconventional, but said that the time had come to “take bold steps and tackle big issues.”

In Missouri, roads and bridges are funded through a 17 cent per gallon tax on gasoline and diesel fuel. Missouri’s fuel tax has not changed since 1996, and the buying power of that tax has diminished over time. Last year, the Missouri Department of Transportation declared itself about $800 million shy of funding its five-year STIP, or State Transportation Improvement Plan. Consequently, in November, voters were asked whether they would approve a tax hike that would, over time, add 10 cents to the price of every gallon of fuel we buy. The tax increase would have taken us to 27 cents per gallon and was supposed to generate about $280 million dollars each year, divided between MoDOT and law enforcement. Voters rejected the proposal.

My preference is to increase the fuel tax while enacting a comparable reduction in income tax. In other words, make the fuel tax increase revenue-neutral so the total tax burden to Missourians does not increase. Unfortunately, that prescription has not advanced past the talking stage.

In an effort to avoid bonding, the House of Representatives developed an alternative plan that relied on annual appropriations from general revenue funds. The House solution assumes that each subsequent Legislature will follow the course began this year. That’s a risky assumption, which would not ensure revenues will be spent on bridges, and would have disqualified Missouri for a pending federal transportation grant.

If awarded, that grant would help address one particularly daunting transportation challenge – the Interstate 70 bridge that spans the Missouri River near Rocheport. Portions of the 3,000-foot structure are nearly 60 years old, and the bridge is in desperate need of repair or replacement. MoDOT says repairs to the existing bridge could result in eight-hour traffic delays on I-70. The grant would help ensure that the Rocheport Bridge could be replaced entirely.

Last week, a resolution authorizing the governor’s bonding plan was brought before the full Senate. Supporters of the House plan launched a filibuster that blocked the bonding legislation from moving forward. Meanwhile, negotiations took place behind the scenes. When the marathon session ended at 2 a.m., there was hope for compromise.

The compromise pares the bond request to $301 million, which would fund repairs to 215 bridges. The $50 million for the other 35 bridge projects would be paid from general revenue. Payback would be over seven years, instead of 15, substantially reducing the interest cost to the state. The whole thing is contingent on Missouri qualifying for the federal grant to build the Rocheport I-70 bridge. The Senate gave initial approval for the revised bonding plan and a final vote is expected in the coming days. The legislation then moves to the House for consideration.

The compromise offers a workable solution that ensures funds will be targeted to transportation and does not raise taxes. There’s no dispute that we need to invest in Missouri’s roads and bridges. The question has been how to address transportation needs in a way that’s effective, fiscally responsible and politically do-able. Maybe we are there; we will see what the House thinks.

Thank you for reading this legislative report. You can contact my office at (573) 751-2108 if you have any questions. Thank you and we welcome your prayers for the proper application of state government.