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St. Louis Zoo

The St. Louis Zoo sculpture in Forest Park. Post-Dispatch file photo

I have long been accused of being a “tax and spend liberal.” Fair enough, if that describes advocating for adequate revenue for vital services — like safe water, good schools and transportation options — during my 18 years in the Missouri Legislature.

The irony is that I rarely had the occasion to vote on tax increases. The state constitution’s Hancock Amendment largely shifts that burden to the voters.

This year’s general election offers two such opportunities in St. Louis County. Vote no on both.

Proposition Z: This one-eighth-of-a-cent sales tax for the St. Louis Zoo is being promoted as having a minimal effect on people’s lives. But pennies add up. And they add up more for people living on the edge. St. Louis County should break the habit of funding services on poor people’s backs. Already too many regressive sales taxes — almost 10 percent in some municipalities — fund necessities, like education, children’s services, fire protection and emergency communication.

The galling part of this proposal is that the zoo already has a tax. As part of the Zoo-Museum District, it gets more than $20 million yearly from a property tax in St. Louis city and county that funds it, the St. Louis Art Museum, Missouri Botanical Garden, Missouri History Museum and St. Louis Science Center. Since the early ’60s, cultural institutions here have been publicly funded. A state law enabled voters to form the district, resulting in four of the five institutions not charging admission. (The garden charged a fee historically.)

Although some district leaders like to tout the institutions as “free to all,” they are not free to all. Property owners in the city and county pay — and then host everyone else.

In 2009, I introduced a bill allowing each institution to choose if and how it would charge admission to nonresident visitors. The resulting firestorm was startling. The tourism establishment’s haranguing was outsized: The bill would destroy tourism! They hired a powerful lobbyist. He killed the bill. Simple enabling legislation.

Another compelling reason to vote no is to discourage any of the four other institutions from going rogue in seeking separate funding. The district is a strength of city-county cooperation and a large factor in making each institution world-class. Its governance should be a safeguard for wise use of revenue. Voters should not give in to separate money grabs.

Why doesn’t the district ask voters to raise its property tax and/or get enabling legislation to charge nonresidents admission?

Proposition D: The second proposal deserving a no has been sent to voters statewide by the Legislature. It would raise the gas tax a total of 10 cents over four years. And it contains a poison pill that should outrage voters.

Just like the last two proposals for gas tax hikes, this increase would disproportionately help rural areas by funding only interstates and “letter highways.” Under the state constitution, gas tax goes solely to roads and bridges. None can be spent for urban or rural public transportation, passenger rail, ferries or bicycle paths. This proposal makes sure those modes continue to starve.

I had hoped that after the sound drubbing voters gave the last two gas tax hikes, the concrete cartel in Jefferson City would realize it should address the plight of all transportation modes. But it decided to obfuscate instead. It is promoting the tax for safety — funding the Highway Patrol — while shifting the patrol’s current appropriation to roads and bridges.

The bill’s poison pill defies responsible distribution of state revenue. It sets up the “Emergency State Freight Bottleneck Fund” into which the Legislature would appropriate general revenue. At last, the road and bridge guys could legally take from the pot of money already gutted by tax cuts to build their pet projects.

Who would lose from this sleight of hand? Anyone who relies on state funding for elementary and secondary schools, universities, mental health care, Medicaid, hospitals, criminal justice and prisons, environmental protections, and, not to forget, other modes of transportation without their own special tax like roads and bridges have.

Once again, myopic transportation planners in Jefferson City need to be denied. Locking the state into more funding that ignores the transportation needs of millions of urban, rural and poor Missourians seals the state’s fate in concrete.

Vote no on Prop Z and Prop D.

Joan Bray of University City represented mid-St. Louis County in the Missouri House, then Senate, from 1993 to 2010. She served on the transportation committees in both bodies and chaired the House Transportation Appropriations Committee.

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