Selling a tax increase to a Republican Legislature in a deeply red state is never an easy task. That’s true even if the rationale for the hike is indisputable.
So Sen. Dave Schatz, R-Sullivan, co-chairman of a new transportation task force, didn’t pull any punches at the group’s inaugural meeting last week.
“One of the basic roles of government at its core is to fund infrastructure and we have not kept up with our commitment to do that,” Schatz acknowledged.
No we haven’t. Our lack of commitment is glaring. It is also well-documented.
Missouri’s transportation system is the seventh largest in the country but ranks 47th nationally in funding.
Our 17 cents per gallon gas tax is among the lowest in the nation.
We rank sixth nationally in number of bridges, with 10,394, but about 2,000 of those are in need of repair. Those are the facts. Of course, the General Assembly knows the facts.
They’ve heard them before from previous task forces and blue ribbon committees convened to study the issue over the years.
They heard about the need for more revenue in 2014 during the debate over a proposed three-quarters of a cent sales tax hike for transportation, which voters overwhelming rejected.
And they’ve heard them from their constituents.
“Our roads are crumbling and our constituents are grumbling,” Schatz’s co-chairman, Rep. Kevin Corlew, R-Kansas City, said, pointing out that he hears about the problem at nearly every community meeting he attends.
The problem isn’t recognizing the need. Anyone who drives the state with any regularity understands the need.
The dilemma is what to do about it. Or, more specifically, how to raise the hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars to fix the problem. It’s a daunting task.
Some have criticized the latest transportation task force as a giant waste of time. Next year, after all, is an election year and politicians are loathe to float tax increases when they have to go before the voters to get re-elected.
We don’t see it that way. We think the timing of this task force may be spot on.
First, if we are going to get serious about fixing our state’s infrastructure problem, it will take Republicans speaking out and stepping up to vote for a tax increase. That’s called leadership.
That’s why we applaud Schatz for taking on the thankless task of leading this commission and for publicly advocating for an increase in the gas tax. It’s the most sensible way to address the revenue problem at least in the short term.
Missouri’s fuel tax hasn’t been raised in 21 years. Former governor John Ashcroft, who led the push for a 6-cent increase two decades ago, recently told a gathering of fellow Missouri governors it was one of the most important things he accomplished during his administration.
That is a cue that Gov. Eric Greitens can use as he punches his ticket for a run for the White House. He is in a hurry to build a legacy and a bold infrastructure funding plan would look good on his resume.
In the end, any tax increase isn’t going to succeed without the governor’s blessing.
Understandably, Greitens wasn’t going to take on an issue like transportation funding his first year in office. Instead, he called for more study which Schatz’s task force will deliver and which will provide necessary cover for a revenue increase.
Insiders say Greitens is studying the playbooks from other Republican governors who have successfully taken on infrastructure improvements and used it to their advantage in campaigning later for higher office.
It worked for them, and it could be a source of inspiration for Greitens in taking on one of the most vexing challenges our state faces.