The Return of the Transportation Sales Tax
Last year, Missourians soundly rejected Amendment 7, which proposed a 0.75 cent increase in the state sales tax to fund transportation improvements in the state. Its main purpose was to head off an impending funding crisis for the Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT), which will not have enough funds to maintain the highway system in its current state by 2017. But it turns out Missourians might not have seen the last of that transportation sales tax.
Whatever the reasons Amendment 7 failed, it was good for Missouri that it did, because it was not wise policy. Using a general sales tax to pay for highways is both unfair and economically unsound. Instead, the state should modernize the user-tax base that currently funds MoDOT. That could mean increasing the fuel tax, raising the motor vehicle sales tax, indexing licensing fees to inflation, implementing tolling, or some combination of those methods. That way, those who use the roads would pay for them, and in proportion to their use. Using general sales tax to fund roads subsidizes driving and interstate trucking that passes right through Missouri. As we wrote before:
… the fact is the vast majority of trucking freight in Missouri is not bound for Missouri. For example, of the 500 million tons of freight traffic in 2011, only 39 percent of that freight is either inbound or intrastate trucking. Forty-six percent of traffic by weight simply passes through Missouri. In terms of value of the goods transported, only 26 percent has a destination within Missouri while 61 percent of goods by value transit the state.
Unfortunately, a new bill in the Missouri House (HJR 33) would simply revive Amendment 7, albeit in a different form. Instead of raising the state sales tax by 0.75 percent, the bill would divert 0.10 percent of the state sales tax into the road fund for five consecutive years until the amount diverted reached 0.50 percent (two-thirds of Amendment 7). If that came to pass, it would mean that 12 percent, or $233 million in 2014 numbers, of state sales tax revenue would be diverted to the state road fund. That is likely to lead to budget cuts in other state programs or higher taxes for Missourians.
As we have written before, the defeat of Amendment 7 opened the door for sound, user-based policy solutions to MoDOT’s funding problems. HJR 33 is not one of these.