Published May 12th, 2021 at 10:01 AM
The Missouri House passed the first tax increase that would go into effect on a governor’s signature in 28 years Tuesday night after a lengthy debate that exposed deep divisions in the Republican caucus.
On two votes, the Republican majority of 113 split almost evenly, first on the question of whether to seek voter approval of a 12.5-cent per gallon fuel tax and then on final passage.
The 49 Democrats, which one minority member noted were only needed when the GOP was split, gave only one vote to an amendment from Rep. Jason Chipman that sought to send the tax increase to the ballot for voter approval.
It failed 48-102.
“They talk to us about taxes and charter schools,” said state Rep. Raychel Proudie, D-Ferguson. “Otherwise, we can kick rocks.”
The House spent almost four hours debating the bill, and most of that time was on Chipman’s proposal for a referendum. The debate was marked by deep resentment among some Republicans over the lobbying effort to pass the bill, which backers demanded pass unchanged from its Senate version.
State Rep. Jered Taylor, R-Republic, said he had prepared an amendment similar to Chipman’s that would have set a statewide vote on the tax hike after an audit of the Missouri Department of Transportation to show whether a true need existed for new funding.
“I was told that if I offered my amendment, then the Second Amendment Preservation Act would be killed in the Senate,” Taylor said of a bill he is sponsoring that would declare federal gun laws and regulations “invalid” Missouri.
Backers, however, said the need to keep amendments off was a matter of time. Lawmakers adjourn their regular session at 6 p.m. Friday and any changes would have required another Senate vote.
“The clock is ticking,” said state Rep. Becky Ruth, R-Festus, chair of the House Transportation Committee.
The bill, unchanged from the version that was approved by the Senate, passed by a vote of 104-52.
The tax, if Gov. Mike Parson signs the bill, would take effect in five steps of 2.5 cents each starting Oct. 1. When fully implemented on July 1, 2025, the gas tax would be 29.9 cents a gallon and would add $337.5 million annually to the state road fund and $125 million for city and county governments to spend on local roads.
The bill also includes a 20% increase on the cost of an alternative fuel decal purchased each time a vehicle’s registration is renewed.
The last time lawmakers approved a tax increase without putting it to a statewide vote was in 1993. At that time, Democratic Gov. Mel Carnahan was reacting to a court decision that declared state funding for schools was inadequate, and the bill increased income taxes on wealthy Missourians and corporations.
The last bill increasing the fuel tax was passed in 1992 and signed by Gov. John Ashcroft, a Republican. It increased the tax by six cents a gallon in three two-cent steps.
When the debate focused on the impact of the fuel tax, supporters talked of the safety improvements the money will buy for highways. Fuel tax revenues are dedicated to highway uses, including the Missouri State Highway Patrol.
“I believe this is an investment in our roads and bridges,” Ruth said. “We are conservatives. We have a duty to make sure our roads and bridges are safe.”
Ruth also worked hard to sell the provisions of the bill that allow a person to receive a rebate of the fuel tax if they keep receipts and make regular claims to the state.
“Truly in my heart I tried my best to make this reasonable for everybody,” she said.
When the debate focused on the motivation for the tax increase, opponents pointed to the lobbying interests for heavy contractors and labor unions. Rep. Justin Hill, R-Lake St. Louis, said Republicans are doing their bidding in two ways.
“The same people that testified for this are the same people who rape our budget for tax credits,” Hill said. “They are up there right now looking down on us laughing.”
Rudi Keller covers the state budget, energy and the legislature in Missouri. This story first appeared on the Missouri Independent, a nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering state government, politics and policy.