On this special edition of Digging In, Eric Bohl and B.J. Tanksley tackle these questions on Proposition D:
- Why is the money going to the highway patrol?
- Won’t politicians just divert the money for other things?
- MoDOT hasn’t used their money wisely before why would they now?
- We pay enough taxes already, why should we vote for more?
- How will this benefit rural roads?
Eric: Hi everybody I’m Eric Bohl, the Director of Public Affairs here at Missouri Farm Bureau. And we are here today to talk a little bit about Proposition D. With me is B.J. Tanksley. We wanted to answer a few of the questions that y’all have been asking us about why Missouri Farm Bureau supports Proposition D.
B.J.: Yeah Missouri Farm Bureau has had policy in support of transportation funding for a while. We’ve advocated for probably what was in the legislature and now have the position of supporting it while it goes to the ballot. Although we do know that you all have asked several questions both on Facebook and other social media platforms so we’re going to take this time to dive into some of those questions and hopefully have a better understanding before we all go to vote next Tuesday.
Eric: Yeah we are just getting run through about five questions on the Proposition D. We’ve gotten these from a lot of people, none of these came from any individual. These really just have been sort of the themes of a lot of the questions we’ve been receiving both in person and on social media. We’ll get started with the first one which is probably the one that we got the most of especially after the sample ballots were mailed out because of the way that the language was written caused a little bit of people to question why it was written that way. So B.J. that first question is “Why is the money Proposition D going to fund the Highway Patrol?”
B.J.: Yeah, so the simple answer is the road fund which is funded by the fuel tax has always funded the Highway Patrol. It’s one of those things that if you’re not involved in government or in budgeting of the government you may not understand, but the fuel tax is literally funded most of the highway patrol for quite a while now. So what happens now is our current fuel tax comes in and the Highway Patrol basically gets the first swipe at it and then MoDOT gets the remainder of those fuel tax revenues. So any time you’re increasing the fuel tax you’re actually increasing the possible budget for the Highway Patrol as well. As far as the ballot language, part of that just comes back to the political process. As we were working our way through the legislative process and getting late in session and hoping to achieve one of our priorities, which was sending a transportation funding option to the ballot, it became clear that one of the best ways to do so was by talking about the Highway Patrol and the fact that this does afford extra funding for the Highway Patrol. And so it just became a political reality. Any increase in the fuel tax was going to help fund the Highway Patrol. It just became the verbiage as we worked or through the political process.
Eric: And you mentioned that the Highway Patrol and road funding are both funded by that gas tax, but it’s also really important to mention that they are the only things that can be paid for by the gas tax, and that’s why increasing the funding for the Highway Patrol actually ends up increasing funding for roads and bridges.
B.J.: That’s exactly right. You know the fuel tax funds the Highway Patrol, local roads and bridge construction, and MoDOT’s road and bridge construction, and that’s what it has always been used for. My opinion is part of the simplicity of Prop D is what’s the beauty of it, to be honest with you, is the fact that it’s not making drastic changes. If you don’t hear fusses about the way our road fund is used now, you’re not going to hear it in the future. The way I explained it is this isn’t changing the allocation of funds it’s only increasing the size of that pot. So MoDOT clearly does benefit from this, our local roads and bridges benefit from it, and the Highway Patrol benefits from it, which is why we’ve seen endorsements from the Highway Patrol Troopers Association, that may not be the technical name for them, but the Troopers Association has been supportive as well as a lot of transportation officials as well.
Eric: Yeah and the the boundaries that keep the money in that is actually a constitutional pot of money.
B.J.: That’s a great point.
Eric: It’s not connected to the general revenue fund like most almost all other state spending is.
B.J.: No. And that’s one of the other things I’ve heard speaking at Farm Bureau annual meetings, talking to other groups talking about Proposition D is “Oh well you know they’ll just use it how they want to.” You hear references to other funds that are coming into state government that “Well they’ll just offset this money with other monies.” Well that’s not possible through this because it’s constitutionally mandated to go to roads and bridges and the Highway Patrol and it’s always regularly audited, this money will go towards roads and bridges and the Highway Patrol. So once again the simplicity is the beauty. But I do think it’s a clear mandate that this money, if we choose to invest in it, will go towards roads and bridges and the Highway Patrol. I thought the campaign as well as our staff here did a good graphic of showing the streams of funding, and this is just adding another stream of funding or another lane to the road. So it’s just expanding that pool. So there’s more money. The truth is we’ve seen the buying power go down by somewhere near 60 percent. Increasing by 10 cents now only brings us up to the purchasing power of the original 17 cents in 1996. You’ve probably heard all these talking points before but that’s the truth. We’re not being extravagant in this. We’re not going to be able to do every project we ever hope to do with this funding stream but it will secure both the Highway Patrol’s funding and MoDOT’s funding for a good time to come.
Eric: Yeah and that’s really our second question is “What’s going to keep politicians from diverting the money from Prop D for other things?” A lot of people bring up for lottery and they say “Well we were given a bait and switch with that. When they said if you just give us lottery money or casino money or whatever it may be, it’s all going to go to education and that’s going to increase the overall size of the pie for education.” And then what they saw was well that new money came in so they said “I guess we don’t have to spend general revenue on that anymore,” so they just shifted that money to somewhere else and people felt like they were sold a bill of goods there and they rightfully are concerned that that may be what happens here.
B.J.: Yeah, it can’t happen here because it’s constitutionally mandated and regularly audited. But additionally MoDOT and the Highway Patrol receive very little general revenue funding. This isn’t offsetting general revenue funding here. MoDOT receives very little. The Highway Patrol for the actual patrol like streets division doesn’t receive a lot of revenue. This will only increase those pots. It will not be offsetting any general revenue for one thing because there’s not a lot there, and then, more importantly, because it’s constitutionally designated to go to these needs and regularly audited to ensure that nothing is changing that.
Eric: I think one of the other big questions that we’ve gotten on Facebook, and the theme of the comments on social media has been, “Well MoDOT hasn’t been spending the money that they have right now very well,” and “I see four guys lean on a shovel as one person’s working” and “they waste so much money today if they would just be efficient at how they use the money that they currently have, they wouldn’t need any more money, they’d have plenty of money to do all the things that they need done.” So what do you say to that?
B.J.: Yeah, we’ve seen a lot of that. And I know that in the past there may have been concerns about efficiency, but the truth is MoDOT is slimmer than they’ve ever been. In the past few years, Director McKenna has done a lot of work in that area. We’ve seen cuts to staffing. We’ve seen strategic cuts in areas that they could. In recent years they’ve been dipping into the reserve fund just to do the work that has to be done to maintain our roads and bridges, not to do expansion projects. This is the rainy day fund in case of a major catastrophe that they’ve been dipping into just to keep the roads in good working condition. One of the big things that is very important is nationally MoDOT ranks third inefficiency. Administrative costs are very low at MoDOT as far as national or national perspective. Now they’re not zero, that’s the truth, but there’s always some funding that has to be done, but MoDOT has been very strategic about what they’ve done. They’ve changed some of their internal processes so they’re doing some design build projects where a lot more of that is sent out to experts and then come back in, and that’s all been done on a cost saving basis. They do more projects on time and under budget than ever. I know we hear that, but the truth is some of those concerns of efficiency and MoDOT doing well may have been a thing in the past, but not so much lately. The true statistics show that MoDOT is doing a good job out there, and they’re doing the best they can with the funding they have, and we can’t solve every problem by cutting our way out of it. The truth is that doing the work that they have to do, one of the basic functions of government is providing for infrastructure and that just cost money. You know, the truth is, I know you hear about that two guys with one shovel and one time when we asked them that we’ve had them in front of our members and talked about these issues and they say “It’s easier to have two guys on one shovel than it is to have three trucks out there moving four guys.” And so sometimes those efficiencies that don’t look so much, really are when you look at the grander scheme of what the whole day’s work is, of not having three trucks out there, and of being able to do more jobs at one time. So I know there’s always gripes and we hear that, but the truth is, MoDOT has worked through the years to be more and more efficient, to do better, to do the best they can. They’ve cut, they’ve cut, and they are slimmer now than they have been. And nationally are recognized as one of the most efficient departments. So yeah, they’ve done good work.
Eric: Well like you say, they have been shown to be the third most efficient Department of Transportation in the nation, which is a pretty impressive statistic, and some of the things that back that up are over the past five years their projects have on average come in significantly under budget and ahead of schedule. And when you see that and government where a department is actually run well enough that are coming in under a budget, that doesn’t happen too often. So yeah, I understand a lot of people it’s also just kind of fun to beat on the government. I do it plenty. But you know give credit where credit is due, and they have done a pretty good job of getting things working and stretching those dollars that they can making them work well.
B.J.: And they really have. You know for several years MoDOT has been talking about needing additional funding, and to their credit they haven’t stopped the services they do have to do. The truth is, we have one of the sixth or seventh largest systems in the nation and we’re funded at the 46th level or 47th level. You know, we’re way underfunded as far as revenue per mile. But MoDOT has continued to stretch those dollars as much as they can. The state government has told them no to additional funding on many occasions of trying several of these options. And so I think it’s time that we step up, and do the right thing, and give them the funding that’s necessary.
B.J.: To their credit they’ve done as much as they can with the funding they’ve been allowed.
Eric: You know, really one of the other ways that this is sometimes addressed when a government agency has what the internal people perceived to be a shortfall, we’ll take the approach of “Well let’s cut where it would really hurt, so then the citizens are going to start to notice.” And you know that actually has happened with government shutdowns in the past on the federal level where they look for the most scenic National Park or the Statue of Liberty, let’s shut that down, even though they really have plenty of money to fund a thing like that, just so that they try to make the pain as severe as possible. They didn’t take that approach.
B.J.: No absolutely. Construction is still going on. You can look at report cards that show our roads are in relatively good condition. They’re doing as much as they can, just those high dollar projects with the ones are not able to keep on bridge constructions bridge repairs and replacements up. Those are where the real cost are they’re doing overlays instead of replacements. They’re doing as much as they can, but long term this isn’t sustainable. You can’t spend into your rainy day fund forever.
Eric: So another question that we’ve been hearing a lot of comments about especially on social media again is people saying things to the effect of well “I pay enough taxes already and I’m taxed to death as it is. They have plenty of money. I don’t need to give them any more, and why should I vote to increase the funds that we’re paying in our gas tanks?”
B.J.: The truth of the matter is nobody wants to pay any more taxes. I don’t know anybody that does at least. But the fact is if you don’t pay it, our roads are just going to get worse and it’s going to cost you somewhere. Whether that’s in traffic delays if you’re in the urban areas or in car repairs from rough roads or just delays in safety. Unfortunately, our safety record in the state of Missouri isn’t all that great. We lose lives because of some of the safety improvements we’re not able to do. You know I grew up in southeast Missouri, worked regionally in southeast Missouri a lot, there’s a lot of those little memorials on the side of the road. And unfortunately a lot of those could be avoided if we could widen the road, if we could straighten out some of those curves, if we could add the rumble strip to the side of the road, guardrails inbetween the major highways, those kind of things or major safety improvements that can be done with this type of funding, that as of right now we’re just maintaining the roads. And just on top of that I’m not trying to fear everybody into it, it may get around to you know rural route 17 eventually, but with the additional funding those things will get done quicker. We’ll be able to do more every year and reduce the fatalities on the road. There is a true human cost to this as well. Nobody wants to pay more money for anything. I personally see it as a core function of government to to provide for a good infrastructure. And currently we’re not able to do it at the level of funding that we’ve been provided. And that’s why I think it’s just the right time to go ahead and do this. The truth of the matter is, we can either say yes to this or wait. If we wait, it’s just going to take more it’s just going to cost more, it’s just going to hurt more when we do it.
Eric: Yeah and we haven’t raised this tax in 22 years. So there are a lot of other taxes that yes they have increased. This is one where it has a very dedicated funding source where you pay for what you use. It’s a user fee a lot of people refer to it as because if you’re driving and you’re the one paying the tax for it. And that’s the type of thing that is I think a good way to do things, but you occasionally do over time have to continue to increase it to keep up with inflation. It has been long enough that now, like you mentioned, the purchasing power has decreased on that money so much due to inflation, that we kind of are up against that moment where you need to decide are we going to keep on funding it or not. So the other thing you mentioned do a little bit too is that Missouri has the 49th lowest gas tax. There’s only one state with a lower gas tax and that’s Alaska because they have petroleum money that they get. That’s right. So really out of all the states that fund a gas tax the way that you’d normally think of it, we really have pretty much the lowest tax and that’s a great thing, as long as it’s paying to keep up with what we need to be doing on our roads, and it’s getting the point where it’s not.
B.J.: That’s exactly right. Another great point. Last week while governor Parson was out doing his tour that he spoke to lots of crowds about was the fact that by funding it through a fuel tax actually out of state drivers will be helping to fund this. And so as a user fee where who’s driving the roads whether they be Missourians or out of state Missourians crossing our state you know we have some of the major highways whether it’s 55 or 70, with a lot of tractor trailer traffic, a lot of through traffic, as they are crossing the United States. And this will also help them fund some our roads and bridges projects some of the estimates are close to 25 percent and this will be paid by out of state people traveling through or working in the state of Missouri because we all pay for gas. And when we go through their states we’re paying for theirs and when they come through ours they are paying a lot less for ours. And so this just kind of helps it level out the playing field. So I think like you said there’s nothing more conservative than a user fee. This is a commonsense approach. It’s a measured approach, it’s not an extravagant approach. And I think it allows us to address some of our needs, and that’s why I think you know nobody wants to pay more for anything. But if we don’t do it now, we’re going to have to at some point.
Eric: And we’ve talked a lot before that a lot of conservatives especially have no problem paying for things as long as they believe they trust the money’s going to be spent where they say it’s going to be spent and that it won’t be just thrown away and wasted. So that’s another reason I think a lot of people have been supportive of this.
B.J.: Yes, and some of the highlights we’re talking about you know, when fully funded, bringing in 46,000 miles of highway pavement repair. That is a lot of miles. That is things we can’t do now. We’re talking about addressing over 2,000 bridges that are in poor condition. Our bridges slow us down, one lane bridges and wait restrictor bridges. And by doing this we’re allowed to do a lot of those projects. That’s a lot of miles and a lot of bridges around the state, and a lot of those are your local bridges that have been there for years and years that have life expectancies of 25 or 15 years and now we’re sitting on year 60 or 70 since those were put in place. So, eventually those those are going to have to be done.
Eric: So, the last issue that we will hit, the last question, that we’ve gotten from you is how is this money going to be used to actually help rural roads. Is it not just going to go all to the cities and the population centers. Why should I trust that this money is actually going to come to where it affects me in a rural area.
B.J.: One of the things to point out is once again this is a fuel tax. The fuel tax the current fuel tax distribution breaks out to be about 50-5050 percent, 49-51 percent goes to urban versus rural areas. So it’s a pretty fair distribution. I like to say that if both areas aren’t real thrilled with the piece of the pie they’re getting it’s probably pretty fair. And that’s what we hear mostly about when we talk about the fuel tax. Everybody wishes they were able to get more. The good thing about this is it doesn’t change the distribution, it just increases the part of the pie. But the great thing that this does is it’s not a change in the fuel tax, one-third is still dedicated for local projects. This, when fully funded would bring about a $123 million dollars back to our cities and counties for them to address their priority projects. Now that’s not all the money that your cities and counties are going to get. Your cities and counties are going to get the money that they normally get for MoDOT projects, but then your local county will have an additional funding from this funding stream that will allow them to choose the transportation projects that they want. And we’ve heard the same questions: Does it have to go to transportation on the local level? The answer is yes, it’s constitutionally designated on the local level just as well it is at the state level. When I’ve talked to county commissioners they are thrilled about this. They’re like wow. Whether it’s $40 thousand dollars in one county or hundreds of thousands of dollars in another county they’re thrilled because they know that locally they can address their needs their way with that amount of money. It may be a bridge in one county, it may be new pavement in another county, but those local decisions are why we need to choose to back this up, because our local people will be able to make good decisions with what is a $123 million dollars of additional funding to go to our local counties and cities.
Eric: And I’ve even talked to somebody myself who is a county commissioner is one of our rural counties who said that they need to hire a new sheriff’s deputy but they didn’t have the funds to do. So, this would allow them to use some of the money that they had been pulling out of their general revenue to pay for roads, they could actually fill the Road Fund in the county with just road money and then use the general revenue money that they had borrowed to use for roads to instead keep the roads safe.
B.J.: The same thing we’re doing with the Highway Patrol — keeping the roads safe and we’re making sure that there are safe roads out there.
Eric: So there’s a lot of good reasons to support that on a local level. There is money that will be directly coming to your local community and that the state can’t tell you how to spend, aside from the fact you have to spend on roads.
B.J.: And that’s why I think we’ve seen a bipartisan support for that. We’ve seen urban legislators and rural legislators, we’ve seen Democrats and Republicans we’ve seen the governor, we’ve seen both U.S. Senators come out in support of this because we know this is good for everyone. It’s great at the state level, it’s great at the local level. And since we’ve seen the loss in purchasing, power MoDOT has done all they can, but at some point you have to step up and do what has to be done. Nobody wants to pay more for roads and bridges, but we’re pushing everybody to vote Yes on D because it’s time that we step up and provide safer roads and safer streets for our state.
Eric: Great. We appreciate your insight into these questions. I think it’s very helpful and I hope that it answers some of your questions. If you have any more questions, please do feel free to contact us either through our social media channels or by reaching out directly to us here at the home office. We’d be happy to talk to you about any of these issues on Prop D or any of the other ballot initiatives or candidates on the ballot because we try to handle it all. We are appreciative of you sending your questions in and look forward to talking to you on some other issues between now and Election Day. Don’t forget to get out there and vote on Tuesday. It’s coming up just here in a few days. Thank you for joining us. Thank you.