JEFFERSON CITY • A judge could decide as early as next week to let a lawsuit go forward challenging whether Missouri voters can hike the state’s gasoline tax in November.
Associate Circuit Judge Robert Schollmeyer heard arguments Tuesday over a lawsuit filed by Rep. Mike Moon, R-Ash Grove, that seeks to block a referendum from going on the general election ballot that would phase in a 10-cent increase in the state’s motor fuel tax.
Moon argues that the referendum violates the Missouri Constitution because the measure’s wording deals with two topics, which is not allowed.
Legislators approved the referendum in the closing hours of this year’s legislative session, tacking the gas tax issue onto a bill authorizing a tax deduction for Olympic medals.
Moon also argues that the Olympic medals bill was an “improper vehicle” for a referendum. Referendums go straight to the ballot; bills go to the governor’s desk.
“They passed a bill using unconstitutional, illegal procedures,” said Ron Calzone, who filed the suit with Moon.
But attorneys for the state and a coalition of organizations backing the referendum said judges should be cautious in deciding whether to allow cases such as this to move forward.
“The Missouri Supreme Court repeatedly has made it clear that courts should be reluctant to review the constitutionality of ballot measures before an election,” the attorney general’s office said in its response.
Assistant Attorney General Jason Lewis said the court should wait until the election is over to intervene.
“At this point, it is too early to tell what will happen,” Lewis said.
Missouri’s gasoline tax is among the lowest in the nation. But increasing the tax by a dime would place the state’s fuel tax above the national average, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Analysts say the tax could bring in an additional $293 million annually for the state road fund once the full amount has been implemented.
Construction companies already have funneled nearly $300,000 in campaign contributions to a fund set up to get the measure, known as Proposition D, approved.
“Our campaign is going strong and we are building a statewide coalition. We are confident that the courts will let voters decide on making Missouri roads and streets safer and restoring MoDOT’s purchasing power for projects. And we will be working over the next three months to make the case for Prop D, and we are confident that Missouri citizens will vote Yes on Prop D,” said Scott Charton, a spokesman for SaferMo.com.
Gov. Mike Parson, a Republican, has signaled his support for the increase, saying the state cannot continue delaying a major infrastructure plan.
Calzone said Schollmeyer should weigh in, even if it is merely to clarify how the Legislature can draft bills.
“They need a common-sense test,” Calzone said.
Schollmeyer asked Lewis whether this might be an instance in which judicial action is warranted.
“Isn’t this the perfect situation for checks and balances?” he said.
The legislation is House Bill 1460.