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WHAT OTHERS SAY: It's time to go big — it's time to rebuild Missouri

Sunday, August 17, 2014 | 6:00 a.m. CDT

There is a path forward for those gloomy contractors and union workers who saw their dream of a statewide tax to fund new roads collapse on primary election night like a shard of broken concrete falling on a school bus. But first they need to re-focus.

As soon as it was clear that Amendment 7 would lose badly, its supporters saw a totaled vehicle ready for the scrap heap.

“I doubt if many of the state legislators are going to have much of a desire to put a lot of energy into putting something on the ballot anytime soon when you see this sort of result,” said Len Toenges, president of the Associated General Contractors of St. Louis.

Amendment 7 would have imposed a 3/4-cent sales tax on people who can’t afford the hit to pay for new highways damaged by truckers who wouldn’t have to pay. That’s a big reason why it lost.

The backers of Amendment 7 blew it when they decided to limit legislative backlash instead of building a real statewide coalition.

They should take a lesson from the very ragtag bunch that defeated them, a small, thoughtful group of potential allies, including Les Sterman, the former executive director of the East-West Gateway Council of Governments and Thomas Shrout, the former head of Citizens for Modern Transit.

Mssrs. Sterman and Shrout (along with former Post-Dispatch reporter Terry Ganey), defeated this bad tax idea with the same strategy they used to pass a better one just four years ago. They built a coalition.

In 2010, amid the worst recession this generation has known, Mr. Sterman and Mr. Shrout helped pass a sales-tax hike for the Metro transit system in St. Louis, cobbling together a coalition of universities, students, business leaders, unions, faith leaders, hospitals, urbanites and suburbanites.

It was a stunning victory.

The record shows that Missouri voters will increase their taxes when the tax is fair, when the facts are presented to them fairly and when they believe they are investing in something important.

To wit: On Aug. 5, a variety of smaller elections were conducted across the state in which voters raised taxes for local schools, for fire districts and for local capital development projects.

Sure, passing a statewide tax is more difficult, but it is made next to impossible when you try to build support for the wrong tax to pay for misplaced priorities, and then you run a campaign that treats voters like they’re stupid.

PUT SCHOOLS FIRST

Those who believe Missouri is facing a transportation funding crisis shouldn’t give up. They should look to the solution that was staring them in the face the whole time:

Schoolchildren.

Rather than using them as a prop in a dishonest campaign, it’s time for contractors and unions and transit supporters to build a coalition with the state’s most important piece of underfunded human infrastructure: its kids.

Here’s how one of Missouri’s most respected statesmen, state Rep. Chris Kelly, D-Columbia, put it after Amendment 7 failed: “This morning we still have an unsolved road problem,” he wrote on Twitter. “It may be worth considering our entire infrastructure, including education.”

The state’s top need, more than highways, more than business incentives, more than any of the things the legislature wastes its time on, is better funding for schools, from early-childhood education to its state universities. All are underfunded.

The road to better highways and more construction jobs might need a detour, with contractors and the building trades union first asking educators what they can do to help ease their more important shortfalls, such as the $500 million or so the state needs just to properly fund its K-12 funding formula.

Building a massive and powerful coalition between transportation and education constituencies is possible. In fact, a group of big thinkers and power brokers held a meeting in St. Louis, not long before lawmakers decided to go forward with the ill-fated Amendment 7, and brainstormed on what it would take to unite the state behind those things that Missouri used to invest in, like schools and roads. This group knew that the funding strategies would have to be big enough to match their thinking.

Here’s the key: There is capacity in Missouri’s ability to invest in its future. Hidden away in an annual state audit released in June is this tidbit: Missouri’s state government revenue is $3.6 billion below the threshold that would require refunds to taxpayers under the Hancock Amendment.

Yes, that’s billion with a B. That’s $3.6 billion that Missouri is leaving on the table without having to increase its state tax burden higher than it was more than 30 years ago.

In 1980, in an effort to limit the growth of government, Missourians passed the Hancock Amendment, which says that the state cannot collect more than 5.6 percent of Missourians’ personal income. Since 1999, due in part to follow up amendments that limit the legislature’s ability to make up for revenue lost during recessionary times, Missouri’s never come close to that threshold. Every time Missouri hits a rough patch, as it did between 2001-03 and again in 2008-10, the state falls further behind and creates a hole it can’t climb out of without voters coming to the rescue.

Given the leadership and political will, the right combination of tax hikes and reforms could be found to peel off some of that $3.6 billion. Missouri could fund its schools, its colleges, its roads and its public parks and buildings, creating billions of dollars worth of economic activity, and still have a lower effective state tax rate than it had in 1981. This, not tax cuts for the wealthy, would create jobs and economic development.

HOPE FOR THE FUTURE

Despite the Amendment 7 defeat, there is hope in Tuesday’s election for those who wonder if Missourians will ever rally around a statewide tax hike.

Four rural House Republicans beat back serious challenges from candidates funded with hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations from Rex Sinquefield, the retired St. Louis investor who has spent millions of dollars trying to convince lawmakers to cut taxes and damage public schools.

With the help of educators, with nothing like his funding, rural Republicans fought back against King Rex and won.

That’s one motivated piece of the coalition waiting to be led.

It’s roughly the same coalition Gov. Jay Nixon organized each of the past two summers to rally support for his vetoes of tax-cut measures demanded by Mr. Sinquefield and passed by his compliant Legislature.

The time has come to turn that coalition into something more than a summer road show. Those who want to build Missouri’s future must stop playing defense. They must form a powerful coalition that demands attention. It’s time to demand that the St. Louis business community that claims education is its top goal put its money where its mouth is.

It’s time to use the roads and schools that connect us to break down the traditional rural-urban divide. It’s time to unite behind a common and righteous cause.

Amendment 7 supporters thought small and lost.

It’s time to go big. It’s time to Rebuild Missouri.

Copyright St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Reprinted with permission.


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