How to win money for state highways

By Phill Brooks
    Missouri's governor and legislators should look to 1987 to find an effective way to address the financial problems of our state highways being addressed this year by Gov. Mike Parson. That was the last year Missouri voters approved a major increase in taxes for transportation.


    Not too many decades ago, there was a forceful, statewide coalition of business and community leaders that was very public in pushing for highway improvements and funding increases. A key leader was Burleigh Arnold, a top executive of Jefferson City's Central Trust Bank and the leader of the transportation coalition, the Missouri Transportation and Development Council.
    At the time, I was a bit skeptical. The banking industry had a financial interest in the issue because of loans to construction firms awarded highway contracts. Other council members had similar financial interests in better highways.
    But Arnold pulled together a full-throated, statewide and well-financed campaign promoting improved transportation funding that far exceeded the efforts for the last two transportation funding defeats in 2014 and 2018.
    I've not seen since such a well-organized and major statewide organization with such a statewide publicity campaign. I definitely do not sense that kind of groundwork behind this year's proposal from Parson.
    His plan involves a $350 million bond issue to repair or replace bridges across the state. But already a couple of St. Louis area legislators have voiced objections because there are no proposed projects in their areas. are not included. And the Kansas City Star has questioned why Kansas City was excluded.
    Those attacks remind me of a tactic employed by the late Sen. Norman Merrell, D-Monticello, who had a long history of seeking more funding for state highways by bond issues and gas-tax increases back in those earlier decades..
    Merrell's approach to avoid the kind of criticism Parson has encountered was to require an "authorization" bill identifying the transportation projects that could be funded if a transportation funding increase was approved.
    Merrell's authorization proposal included projects across the state that covered, as I remember, every legislative district. But there was a problem. Merrell's authorization proposal exceeded the amount of money that would be raised.
    When I raised that issue, I remember Merrell chuckling and then essentially telling me, that's how you get votes. I'm not suggesting deceit as a means to achieve legislative or voter approval. After all, we've seen enough false promises from politicians to be wary of that kind of approach.
    But Merrell's tactic reflected an understanding of the historic "pork barrel" concept that you've got to get legislators to at least believe they've got a chance of a benefit.
    It struck me as first winning support for funding increases and then let the food-fight begin as to whom gets what. Beyond contrasts with that earlier period, there are some other, potential problems for Parson's plan.
    I suspect there'll be stiff legislative opposition to putting the state into a bond-issue debt to be paid off with state General Revenue normally used to fund programs like education and law enforcement.
    That's a major departure from the tradition that highways are funded by those who use highways through motor fuel taxes and motor vehicle license fees. Remember, it was not too many years ago that a general sales tax increase for highways was decisively defeated by Missouri voters.
    Finally, as one statehouse lobbyist remarked to me, the governor's bond issue idea lacks an inspiring and comprehensive vision. It doesn't address the problem of the highway damage and congestion from interstate trucks roaring through the state without providing local communities any real benefit.
    It doesn't address the problem of a motor fuel tax based on the amount of gallons you pour into your car rather than a sales tax on the cost of that gasoline that automatically would increase highway revenue with rising gasoline costs.
    As Lt. Gov. Mike Kehoe repeatedly would tell me when he was in the Senate, a comprehensive solution to the state's highway problems will require more than one part -- including, maybe, toll roads. But, of course, maybe a bond issue debate will begin the conversation about a problem that has been growing for years.
    EDITOR’S NOTE: Phill Brooks has been a Missouri statehouse reporter since 1970, making him dean of the statehouse press corps. He is the statehouse correspondent for KMOX Radio, director of MDN and an emeritus faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism. He has covered every governor since the late Warren Hearnes.

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