By DAVID A. LIEB
The Associated Press
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Missouri voters have said they don't want to hike sales taxes to pay for roads and other transportation projects. But there appears to be no immediate Plan B for plugging a looming gap between the state's available highway funding and its anticipated needs.
The defeat of the transportation sales tax in Tuesday's primary elections marked the second time in a dozen years that Missouri voters have turned down a major highway tax plan. The measure commanded the most votes on a ballot that lacked competitive races for the top statewide and congressional offices.
The Republican-led Legislature, which referred the transportation tax to the ballot, nonetheless scored a significant victory by winning two of the three special elections for vacant House seats. That will push the GOP House ranks to 110 members — one more than the minimum two-thirds majority needed for veto overrides — just in time for a big showdown with Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon in a Sept. 10 veto session.
The proposed three-quarters cent sales tax known as proposed Constitutional Amendment 7 would have raised at least $540 million annually for 10 years, making it the state's largest-ever tax increase. The Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission had approved a list of over 800 projects that would have been funded, led by the widening of Interstate 70 to three lanes in each direction between Kansas City and St. Louis.
That list now will be shelved, and transportation commissioners are to meet later Wednesday to discuss what to do next.
Commissioners have said previously that the state's road and bridge budget is projected to drop to $325 million by 2017 from a recent high of $1.3 billion annually, leaving the agency without enough for needed maintenance, much less major new projects.
"I think Missourians have a clear understanding that more resources need to be invested in our transportation infrastructure, but there just isn't any consensus on how to pay for it," state transportation commission Chairman Stephen Miller said in a written statement after Tuesday's election. "We need to continue working toward that end."
State Sen. Mike Kehoe, a former transportation commissioner who supported the sales tax plan, said he doubts that the Legislature will come back with a new proposal next year.
He said it may take more time, and the closure of aging bridges that cause inconvenient detours, before voters become willing to shell out more money for the state's transportation system.
"The problem's still there, the system size is still there, the number of bridges are still there, and the funding is still declining," said Kehoe, a Republican from Jefferson City.
The proposed transportation sales tax was defeated by 59 percent of the statewide vote. That's closer than in 2002, when a proposed fuel and sales tax increase for transportation lost by almost 73 percent of the vote.
Missouri voters have not approved a transportation tax increase since 1987, though the Legislature did act on its own to increase fuel taxes in 1992.
This year's sales tax proposal split some members of the Republican legislative majority and marked a significant departure from the GOP's tax-cutting trend. In addition to enacting an income tax cut this year, the Legislature also passed a variety of tax breaks tailored to particular businesses and industries.
Nixon vetoed those tax breaks, along with numerous other bills and budgetary provisions.
Special election victories Tuesday by Republicans Tila Hubrecht, of Dexter, and Shawn Sisco, of Rolla, will ensure that Republicans have enough House votes — if they all stick together — to override many of the Democratic governor's vetoes. Republicans already hold a two-thirds majority in the Senate.
In addition to the tax-and-spending bills, the agenda for the September veto override session includes bills extending Missouri's one-day abortion waiting period to 72 hours and allowing specially trained teachers to carry concealed guns in public schools.
Republican House Speaker Tim Jones already is looking ahead to the veto session.
"We will put this supermajority to good use for the people of our great state," he said in a written statement Tuesday night.
Tuesday's primaries technically featured a race for Missouri auditor, but incumbent Tom Schweich was unopposed in the Republican primary and faced no Democratic opposition. All five of Missouri's eight U.S. House members who faced primaries defeated challengers with significantly less name recognition and money.
Primary voters also decided several constitutional amendments. They approved enhanced rights for gun owners, cellphone users and apparently also for farmers. The right-to-farm amendment appeared to pass by a margin of about 2,500 votes out of nearly 1 million cast — close enough that a recount could be requested.
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