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April 7, 2005

What if?

by Chris Feeney

What if we had to pay MoDOT to fix our roads? That was the question posed to our neighbors to the south where residents of five counties along Highway 36 were asked to approve a sales tax to help fund the four-laning of that highway.

Voters in Marion, Macon, Shelby, Monroe and Ralls county were asked if they would pay a cent sales tax over the next 15 years to fund half the project cost. In return, MoDOT promised to complete the project by the end of 2009. The tax, if approved, would generate an estimated $50 million to expand the road to four lanes between Macon and Hannibal.

Hey, I'm all for highway improvements. If I lived in one of those five counties, I suspect I would be voting yes on Proposition 36 to help fund the plan. Proponents make a strong argument - either you offer up half the dough or you won't get any of it and MoDOT will spend the other half making a four-lane highway somewhere else. So you have to look at it as an investment. A four-lane highway means more commerce, new industry, and improved safety. It's a no-lose situation. Well, unless the improved highway doesn't draw in new business, and in fact the escalating sales tax actually chases away commerce.

This issue has throw up some red flags for me. Is this the wave of the future? Is the $1.75 billion we already give the highway department each year going to be used as leverage? Will the highway commission use the cash as bait and dangle it in front of us to squeeze more dollars from the taxpayers?

How many voters in Scotland County would check yes on a similar sales tax if MoDOT promised to replace the dangerous bridges on Highway 15 or to construct shoulders on Highway 136?

But what if local voters said no to such a sales tax? Would MoDOT be like the kid on the playground and pick up his toys and go somewhere else if he didn't get his way? There is always going to be a community that is willing to pay the tax. Will these cities, counties, or whatever be able to buy more MoDOT money, and thus better roads because they are willing to pay for them? That scares me, because there are tons of places in this state where a cent sales tax isn't a drop in the bucket. If that's the future of highway funding, it likely will be a case of the rich getting richer, while we stay poor.

If MoDOT currently has not budgeted funding for the Highway 36 project, where will the money come from when the voters kick in their half? MoDOT can't raise $40 million by raising sales tax in its cafeterias, so it's going to have to take the money away from some other project, or deficit spend. Neither idea sounds real good to me since I'm not seeing much benefit from the proposed road improvement.

I'll give the proposal its due. The sales tax is the perfect disguise. Let's face it, five counties, generating $50 million over 15 years, would be tough to swallow as a levy. But if you use a cent sales tax, it's much easier for consumers to swallow. If you buy a $100 bicycle for your kid, you just spent 50-cents to help four lane your road. That's opposed to paying it all in one-lump sum at the first of the year when you pay your property taxes or in April when you pay the IRS.

I'm pondering this issue on election eve. When you read this opinion piece, you'll have the luxury of knowing how the voters cast their ballots on Proposition 36. I suspect they will take the bait and shell out the bucks.


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