By DOUG WILSON
Herald-Whig Senior Writer
CANTON, Mo. -- A transportation sales tax issue that will be decided next Tuesday represents a big decision for Missouri voters.
Bill Smith, executive director of the Lewis County Industrial Authority, officially supports Amendment 7, a three-quarter-cent sales tax which would generate about $5.4 billion for transportation over 10 years.
"Ask anybody around here and they'll tell you the rural roads and bridges have been let go. They're in dire need of improvement," Smith said.
With the next breath, Smith said many people are not excited about the prospect of raising the sales tax, because it will put some communities close to the 10-cent tax rate. Even though the tax won't be on food, medicine, fuel or utilities, it would be an added living expense, he said.
"Officially, I'm for it ... but it's a tough sell," Smith said.
The Missouri Department of Transportation would receive an estimated $480 million a year under Amendment 7. That money would be used to complete a list of projects unveiled by MoDOT after a series of public feedback meetings around the state.
"One of the most impressive things about this list is the expanse of work it covers and the real, tangible value you can see for your money," said MoDOT Director Dave Nichols. "It includes resurfacing thousands of miles of roads, improving ports, railroads and airports, and even provides additional OATS service throughout rural regions of the state."
Nichols said unless the department gets a new source of revenue soon, it won't have the money to maintain roads and bridges. Over the past five years, Missouri's construction budget for roads and bridges has fallen from about $1.3 billion annually to $685 million this year. It is projected to dip to $325 million by the 2017 budget without an infusion of revenue.
In addition to the funds going to MoDOT, the amendment would divy up 5 percent of the revenue to counties and 5 percent to cities.
Marion County would receive an estimated $1.29 million over 10 years, or about $129,000 per year. Presiding Commissioner Lyndon Bode said the county commission plans to make equipment purchases if the amendment passes, rather than using it toward construction projects.
"We did not want the money tied in ... so in 10 years we're not leaving the county commissioners" facing a big construction funding shortfall, Bode said.
Bode supports Amendment 7, and he has been reminding people that the three-quarters-cent sales tax would be offset in two or three years. A half-cent sales tax that helped finance construction of a four-lane U.S. 36 between Hannibal and Macon will be eliminated.
"We can directly see the benefits. It's not only for us, but it's for our kids and grandkids. If we don't have good roads and bridges, nothing will happen," Bode said.
Lewis County Presiding Commissioner Wayne Murphy Jr., is not swayed by the $1,056,000 projected for the county's road and bridge fund over 10 years.
"I'm not really in favor of it, more for the fact of how it was presented," Murphy said.
He believes the Missouri Legislature should have proposed a fuel tax increase instead of putting forward another sales tax increase. He also notes that a 1-cent sales tax that was originally proposed would not have provided enough money to handle all the state's transportation infrastructure issues. The three-quarter-cent tax won't keep up with wear and tear on the system, Murphy said.
Hannibal would receive an estimated $1.23 million over the 10-year life of the tax. Palmyra's share of the tax is projected at $247,000, and Canton's would be $163,000. Cities with lower populations and lower retail sales would be lower. Alexandria is projected to receive $11,000 over the 10-year life of the tax, and New London would receive $67,000.
Jewell Patek, campaign manager for Missourians for Safe Transportation and New Jobs, believes the tax is widely supported.
"I think it's going to be transformative. We're going to have thousands of miles of road repairs, and we'll replace hundreds of bridges," Patek said.
Elaine Blodgett, president of the League of Women Voters of Missouri, said the sales tax increase is the wrong mechanism for funding transportation. She would prefer to see a use tax paid for by those who use transportation. She believes the cost of a sales tax will be too high for low-income workers.
Blodgett would have preferred to see the Legislature raise fuel taxes, which are among the lowest in the nation. Instead, they passed along a tough decision for voters who are badly divided on the issue, she said.
"I think it's tough when you say this is a big issue, and we're just going to leave it up to voters," Blodgett said.