The Missouri Legislature is considering taking money it saved by slashing programs for the poor, especially poor children, and devoting it to highways. As if borrowing from Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” they seem to be asking: Why not actually use the bodies of poor people as road-paving material?
There’s no mistaking the devastating effects that such legislative action would have on the poor. Last year the Legislature’s ironically named “Strengthening Missouri’s Families Act” was passed over Gov. Jay Nixon’s veto. Part 1 knocked 9,500 Missourians from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families rolls on Jan. 1. More than 6,300 of them were children and 3,500 were children under age 5.
Part 2 takes effect April 1, when 58,000 adults become ineligible for food stamps. Republican lawmakers want them to go get jobs. Lawmakers promised to use the savings for job training, child care, transportation assistance and other programs to get recipients on their feet.
Forget that. Now the money would go for roads.
Here are some words to describe this proposal: Unconscionable. Inhumane. Sadistic. And for those loudly religious lawmakers, un-Christian. Missouri’s faith leaders must make their voices heard.
Senate Appropriations Chairman Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, explained the no-tax highway plan as necessary to improve infrastructure while ensuring tax dollars are spent “responsibly.”
As if caring for Missouri’s neediest is somehow irresponsible. Lawmakers think the state will save $1 billion to $2 billion by whacking this aid over the next decade. For the first time, the Missouri Department of Transportation, historically funded by federal and state fuel taxes, will get significant help from the general revenue fund. State money will be used to match local tax dollars for road and bridge projects.
Next year, when a five-year income tax cut begins phasing in, the general revenue fund will be further stressed. There will be less money for everything the state does.
Lawmakers in hock to anti-tax campaign donors will try anything to avoid asking voters to raise fuel taxes for highway needs. Two years ago they sent a sales tax proposal to voters, who swatted it down — in part because it excused the heavy commercial vehicles that cause the most wear and tear on roads. The new proposal also lets trucks and buses off the hook.
Lawmakers also are considering raising the 17.3-cent gasoline tax by 1.5 cents a gallon and the diesel fuel tax to 20 cents. That’s better, but at $80 million a year, would not make a big dent in the work that’s needed.
The average gasoline tax in the eight states that border Missouri is 24.92 cents. Eight cents a gallon more gets us there. Gas prices are at a 10-year low. If Missouri drivers want better roads, they — and not the neediest among us — should bear the burden.