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Editorial: A modest gas-tax hike would rescue Missouri's dangerously neglected roads

Editorial: A modest gas-tax hike would rescue Missouri's dangerously neglected roads

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Missouri has among the lowest gasoline taxes in America and, not coincidentally, some of the nation’s most worn and outdated infrastructure. So it’s encouraging that a proposed gas-tax hike is close to a final floor vote in the Legislature. It would generate hundreds of millions of dollars for roads and bridges and provide jobs — potentially more than 24,000 of them, according to a recent study.

A critical 2018 report by the American Society of Civil Engineers found that Missouri’s crumbling roads contributed to a significantly higher-than-average cost per Missouri driver in auto repair bills. A state task force that year bluntly declared the situation a drag on the state’s economy and a threat to public safety. Yet Missouri persists in making do on funding road repairs with a 17-cent-per-gallon gas tax that hasn’t been adjusted since 1996.

The gas-tax measure that passed the Senate last month and unanimously passed the House Transportation Committee Monday would change that. It raises the tax by 12.5 cents over five years, which is expected to generate an estimated $450 million annually once fully enacted.

Using a gas tax for infrastructure (especially roads and bridges) makes abundant sense because it’s only paid by those who use the roads. Better yet, a significant portion of it, as much as 40%, would be paid primarily by out-of-state drivers passing through.

A provision to let motorists get rebates from the state for the increased portion of the tax by submitting gas receipts is an odd one, apparently designed to finesse the bill around the knee-jerk anti-tax opposition that it will no doubt encounter among House Republicans. If every tax could be rebated just for the asking, the wheels of government would grind to a halt. On the other hand, the process for getting the rebate is complicated, and the benefit to individual drivers small, so it seems unlikely many will seek it.

We’ve chided the Legislature for pursuing policies in opposition to what voters have already expressed through ballot measures. Some might wonder if our embrace of the gas-tax bill is perhaps hypocritical since Missouri voters rejected a referendum seeking a gas-tax hike in 2018. But as we’ve noted before, that referendum was so convoluted and confusing that it shouldn’t be viewed as a valid measure of the will of the voters.

The fact that supporters of the current initiative include conservative Republican Gov. Mike Parson and the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry should negate any notion that this is some kind of tax-and-spend liberalism. It is, instead, a moderate and necessary step to carry out a basic function of government.

Final legislative passage by the GOP-dominated Legislature is by no means assured. Proponents should be ready with a Plan B of a new statewide referendum, this time with a clear message about the urgency of this issue.

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