JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri House members passed a 1-cent sales tax increase for transportation funding Wednesday, but the issue that has divided the majority Republicans is still a long way from becoming law.
The House voted 96-53 to send the proposed constitutional amendment to the Senate. If passed there, Missouri voters would need to approve the tax at the November ballot.
The measure needed help from minority Democrats to win House approval because only 63 of the chamber's 108 Republicans voted in favor. It takes 82 votes to pass legislation in the House.
Republicans supporting the measure said funding roads, bridges and other transportation needs are a core function of state government that should be done through taxes. They argued the estimated $800 million in annual revenue from the sales tax would help the cash-strapped road construction budget. State transportation officials estimate that budget will shrink to $325 million in 2017 at current funding levels.
"We are not going to be able to do the basic road maintenance," said sponsoring Rep. Dave Hinson, R-St. Clair. "It's only going to get more dramatic from here."
But other Republicans said voting on a tax increase runs contrary to the party's small government values. That philosophy led a group of GOP senators to block a final vote during the closing days of last year's legislative session on a similar penny sales tax hike.
The leader of that effort said after the House vote Wednesday that his feelings about the sales tax increase haven't changed since last year, but that negotiations were ongoing with the measure's backers. Sen. John Lamping, R-Ladue, said "all things are possible," when asked if the bill could win Senate approval this year.
"This is the single largest tax increase in state history," he said. "From that perspective, it's easy for me to oppose."
Even if the bill's supporters could overcome the objections of Lamping and other conservative senators, the tax increase could have a difficult time on the ballot. Missouri residents have frequently rejected tax increases, including a 2012 attempt to raise the state's cigarette tax.
"Forty percent of Missourians would still oppose this if it was being used to construct the landing pad for the second coming of Christ," said Rep. Chris Kelly, D-Columbia.
Supporters said voters would likely go along with a sales tax to fund the roads that many people use in their daily lives.
Under the legislation, the sales tax would need to be reauthorized by voters every 10 years, starting in 2024. Ten percent of funds raised by the sales tax would also go toward local transportation projects. Cities could earmark a portion of those local funds to other forms of transportation, including air, rail, bicycle and pedestrian projects.
The tax increase would not apply to purchases of food and the constitutional amendment would require a subsequent vote of the people to change the gas tax rate or place tolls on existing roads and bridges.