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Group wants to send gas tax hike passed by Legislature to Missouri voters

A conservative anti-tax group wants Missourians to decide whether they will pay extra for gas starting in October as a bill that recently passed in the Legislature dictates.

On Monday morning, Jeremy Cady, state director of Americans for Prosperity, filed paperwork with Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft’s office to begin the process of putting the 12.5-cents a gallon tax increase on a statewide ballot. To succeed in forcing a referendum on the bill, the campaign would have to gather about 110,000 signatures in 90 days.

“We see this as another opportunity to push back against increasing taxes and growing government,” Cady said in an interview with The Independent.

The bill that received a final vote last week would increase the fuel tax in five 2.5-cent steps, with the last increase taking effect on July 1, 2025. It is designed so that each annual increase is less than the constitutional limit on tax increases without voter approval.

That is one of the major reasons for seeking a public vote, Cady said. 

Cady noted that if lawmakers had increased the tax 12.5 cents in one fell swoop, the constitution would have required it to go on the ballot.

Supporters of the tax increase argue that it will restore purchasing power lost since the last increase in fuel taxes and provide the Missouri Department of Transportation with the funds needed to match all available federal highway money.

“We are thrilled that the bill made it through the legislature and we think it made it through the legislature because it is the right idea,” Jeff Glenn, executive director of Missourians for Transportation Investment, said in an interview. “There is an $825 million annual shortfall and we have to address that.”

Two recent attempts to pass tax increases to fund transportation programs, in 2014 and 2018, were defeated. The 2018 campaign, for a 10-cent-per-gallon increase, failed when 54 percent of voters opposed it.

The 2018 campaign cost supporters $5.4 million. Major contributors included highway contractors and their lobbying associations, labor unions and business groups.

“The last campaign was very difficult and we would prefer to see this bill go into law,” said Dan Kleinsorge, campaign manager for the 2018 tax election and executive director of the Missouri Limestone Producers Association.

In part because it did not include a statewide vote, majority Republicans in the Legislature split almost evenly on the bill, while Democrats were united in favor of the new tax. An attempt to put it to a vote failed in the Missouri House on a 48-102 vote, with only one of 49 Democrats supporting a referendum.

It will be a close call on whether supporters hit their target of staying below the constitutional limit. For the 2021 legislative session, the limit on new taxes without a vote is $111.8 million and the tax is expected to bring in $112.5 million during fiscal 2023.

When fully implemented on July 1, 2025, the gas tax would be 29.9 cents a gallon and is estimated to add $375 million annually to the state road fund and provide $139 million for city and county governments to spend on local roads by fiscal 2027.

Motorists who drive an electric vehicle or one that burns another fuel such as natural gas would see a 20 percent increase in the cost of an alternative fuel decal purchased each time a vehicle’s registration is renewed.

The bill also includes a mechanism for receiving a rebate on the new tax. Motorists who keep receipts can file a claim between July 1 and Sept. 30 of each year for a refund of the additional tax.

Missourians have not approved a tax increase submitted to a statewide vote since April 1987. There has not been a significant tax increase of any kind approved by lawmakers without consulting voters since 1993.

Obtaining the necessary signatures will require a massive campaign in a short period of time. The petition must be submitted within 90 days of the final adjournment of the legislative session, which is May 30.

Before signatures can be gathered, however, the petition must be certified and a ballot title written. That must be done within 15 days of submission. Writing the ballot title requires at least 15 days of public comment after the form of the petition is approved and can take up to 23 days.

Americans for Prosperity is a Virginia-based not-for-profit founded by billionaires Charles and David Koch that has spent $100 million or more nationally each election since 2012 on campaigns to support conservative candidates and causes. If the petition is approved for circulation, the time limits in state law would require signatures to be turned in by mid- to late August.

The last bill sent to voters by referendum was the Right to Work legislation passed by lawmakers in 2017 and turned down by voters in 2018.

“The group that has filed the initiative petition still needs to collect their signatures,” Glenn said. “They have got a tall hill to climb there, because this is such a sensible solution.”

Major contributors to the 2018 fuel tax campaign would probably be asked for contributions to sustain this year’s measure. The Missouri Realtors Association, which contributed $250,000 in 2018, would probably be part of any new campaign, association lobbyist Sam Licklider said.

“We would certainly take under consideration efforts to oppose the referendum,” he said.

Whether a successful petition campaign would be followed by a campaign to convince voters to reject the tax is uncertain, Cady said. There were no organized opposition campaigns against the 2014 and 2018 transportation taxes and they both failed at the polls, he noted.

“I can’t say right now,” he said. “Our goal would be to get it on the ballot, not necessarily anything more at this time.”

This article by Rudi Keller is published by permission of The Missouri Independent.

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