JEFFERSON CITY • Missouri voters delivered a resounding defeat Tuesday to a proposed statewide sales tax that would have raised billions of dollars to build roads, bridges and other transportation projects.
In unofficial returns, Constitutional Amendment 7 was rejected by nearly 59 percent of voters. It would have raised the sales tax by three-quarters of a penny per dollar spent.
Several opponents interviewed at the polls in St. Louis County criticized as “regressive” a sales tax they said would have a disproportionate impact on low-income households. Most complained that a tax on goods other than fuel made little sense.
“It’s unfair to have a sales tax,” Robert Kirby said as he exited the Sunset Hills Community Center after voting with his wife, Carole. “I don’t have a problem with a gas tax. Add 10 cents a gallon for gas and 20 cents a gallon for diesel. That’s fair.”
“But we don’t think it’s fair not to tax the truck drivers” crossing the state on interstate highways, his wife added.
Supporters said they couldn’t overcome Missourians’ anti-tax sentiment.
“Missourians, they don’t like tax increases, they don’t want to pay more, no matter what the situation is,” said Sen. Mike Kehoe, R-Jefferson City and the sponsor of the proposal. Kehoe, who watched the returns in downtown St. Louis with business leaders, said the problem remained, “so we’ll have to go back to the drawing board.”
Representatives of the Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission scheduled a news conference for this morning on what happens next. In a statement late Tuesday, Chairman Stephen Miller said the commission was “very disappointed in the result, but the people have spoken and we respect that.”
Officials had hoped to generate about $5.4 billion over 10 years to pay for hundreds of projects, including the reconstruction and widening of Interstate 70 from Independence to Wentzville.
Opponents complained that the trucking industry does most of the damage to the roads but would have paid little for repairs. They noted that the Legislature passed a special sales tax exemption for tractor-trailers in 2012. Also, Amendment 7 would have barred fuel tax increases for 10 years.
Tom Shrout, a spokesman for opponents, said the critics “kind of stumbled on to this phrase: Trucks don’t pay. It’s a simple message that resonates with the public.” He said his group would meet Thursday “and talk about next steps.”
Organized as Missourians for Better Transportation Solutions, the opponents ran a shoestring campaign. It reported raising about $27,000 — $10,000 of it from the St. Louis County Municipal League.
The pro-sales tax campaign, Missourians for Safe Roads & New Jobs Inc., raised more than $4 million. Much of it came from contractors, labor unions, engineers, trucking companies and others that stood to gain.
Department of Transportation officials have said that Missouri cannot continue to rely on the fuel tax because its proceeds drop as drivers turn to energy-efficient cars or drive less. MoDOT’s construction budget is projected to decline to $325 million in 2017, the lowest since 1992. It currently stands at about $700 million.
Without more cash, the state soon won’t be able to afford highway maintenance, much less new construction, officials say.
While the bulk of the new money would have gone toward roads and bridges, MoDOT’s project list also set aside funds for railroads, airports, sidewalks, bike paths and bus systems.
The pro-sales tax campaign stressed that the money would be used for a specific list of safety projects; that persuaded some voters.
“We need it as long as it goes to improve the roads,” said Debra Seals, of Normandy. “At least we know where it’s going.”
Critics said Amendment 7 didn’t do enough for alternate modes of transportation, and the sales tax would have been too high.
Though groceries and prescription drugs would have been exempt, the overall sales tax rate would have climbed to around 10 or 11 percent in some areas.
The state rate would have hit 4.975 percent, up from 4.225 percent. Local sales taxes are levied on top of that.
“The rates are getting high enough that it tends to drive people to the Internet” to shop,” said Tim Fischesser, executive director of the St. Louis County Municipal League, which opposed the measure. “Everybody that has sales taxes ends up losing, even though MoDOT would gain.”
‘NO PERFECT SOLUTION’
Transportation officials have been working for more than a decade to find more money. In 2002, voters defeated a proposed $483 million sales and fuel tax increase.
“There is no perfect solution,” said Kehoe, the sponsor. He said Amendment 7 was crafted around polling that showed a sales tax was most likely to pass at the polls. He said the fuel tax would have to be raised 20 to 25 cents per gallon to generate the money needed.
So Kehoe sponsored Amendment 7 and got legislators to put it on the ballot. In bipartisan votes, the Senate approved it 22-10, and the House 105-43.
But Gov. Jay Nixon threw backers a curve. First, he moved the election to the August primary instead of the Nov. 4 general election, a move that gave supporters only 60 days to devise a project list and campaign.
MoDOT hurriedly assembled the list, based on regional planning groups’ priorities. Major St. Louis-area projects included $350 million to improve Interstate 270 between Lindbergh Boulevard and Highway 367, and $200 million for Interstate 70 between Natural Bridge and Hanley roads.
Then, in early June, Nixon came out against the amendment, saying it would “fall disproportionately on Missouri’s working families and seniors by increasing the cost of everyday necessities like diapers and over-the-counter medication while giving the heaviest users of our roads a free pass.”
Kehoe said that Nixon had “never engaged” on the highway funding issue.
“Missouri has 32,000 miles of roads and 10,400 bridges,” Kehoe said. “When people start seeing bridges close, they’re going to say, ‘Hey, we do have a problem.’ ”
Steve Giegerich and Ken Leiser of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.
Passed — 50.1 percent to 49.9 percent
In a narrow victory that could lead to a recount, voters approved an amendment to guarantee that the right of Missouri citizens to engage in agricultural production and ranching practices "shall not be infringed." The measure was strongly supported in rural counties, many of which approved it by a three-to-one margin. Majorities in all of the state's larger counties opposed the amendment, with the City of St. Louis leading the way with a 73.5 percent "no" vote, according to unofficial returns. Hover over a county on the map for details.
Constitutional Amendment 5: Establish right to bear arms
Passed — 61 percent to 39 percent
The rural/urban divide was even more stark when it came to an amendment that would make the right to bear arms unalienable. The City of St. Louis, St. Louis County, Boone County and Kansas City (which is included with Jackson County on the map) were the only places where most voters opposed the amendment.
Constitutional Amendment 7: Transportation sales tax
Failed— 59 percent to 41 percent
A proposed sales tax to raise billions for transportation projects across the state, however, was soundly defeated. Only 19 of 115 counties supported the initiative. Voters in all of the states's more populous counties shot down the measure, some overwhelmingly so. In St. Louis County, 67 percent of 190,000 people who showed up to the polls opposed the tax.