Builders back tax measure

Critics say a road-funds amendment on the Nov. 2 ballot would hurt social services.
Wednesday, September 29, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 12:45 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY — The push to pass a constitutional amendment that would route money raised by transportation-related taxes to road construction has been largely fueled by several of the state’s top road builders, labor unions and other public-works contractors, campaign-finance records show.

Contributions totaling nearly $1 million have been made to the Committee to Improve Missouri Roads and Bridges, a pro-amendment group registered with the state government, this election cycle.

Critics of the ballot measure, which voters will decide on Nov. 2, say the amendment would take money away from social services and benefit contractors more than citizens. Advocates argue it is in the interest of everyone driving in Missouri, which finished 48th in a recent federal ranking of state road quality.

“All of Missouri is going to benefit from this either financially or in terms of safety,” said Ray McCarty, director of fiscal affairs for the Missouri Chamber of Commerce.

“I think it has a wide base of support. It’s not just an issue that’s supported by contractors,” McCarty said, citing a poll his organization conducted in June that found strong support for the amendment. He said other civic groups that support the measure have either declined to contribute or have made donations not yet publicly reported.

The proposed measure, dubbed Amendment 3, would phase out the practice of using money raised by state fuel and auto-sales taxes to fund state services and agencies unrelated to transportation.

The main force behind the drive has been the Committee to Improve Missouri Roads and Bridges, which is led by members of the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and funded by campaign contributions.

The amendment was placed on the ballot by an initiative petition signed by more than 150,000 registered voters during a drive organized by National Voter Outreach, a group funded by the committee.

“We have grass-roots support as well as a lot of business groups,” said Kelly Gillespie, a vice present at the Chamber of Commerce. “We’ve been on the administration and the legislature for a long time, and this is a way to take it to the citizens.”

The largest donations came from Associated General Contractors of St. Louis, which, along with its political action committee, donated a total of $370,000.

The Heavy Constructors Association, a local chapter of the Associated General Contactors’ national body that represents construction companies in and around Kansas City, gave more than $300,000. Its executive director, Edward Desoigne, is listed as the committee’s deputy treasurer. He was unavailable for comment.

Three of the state’s top road builders also made significant contributions.

During the past five years, Millstone Banger of St. Charles, Emery Sapp and Sons of Columbia and Pace Construction Co. of St. Louis all ranked among the top 10 road builders in the state, according to information released by the Missouri Department of Transportation. Each made contributions of $7,500 to the committee before June 30. Further information on contributions will be unavailable until the next round of campaign finance reports is released Oct. 15.

Critics of the amendment point to the contributions as evidence supporting their case against the amendment.

“Paving the state of Missouri isn’t the answer to our transportation problems,” said Pat Martin, who chairs No on Amendment 3, a committee representing groups organized in opposition to the measure. “To us, the contributions make it clear who is going to benefit from Amendment 3.”

On Tuesday, the Sierra Club’s Missouri chapter joined the opposition.

“They’re not very clear about the fact that it’s going to come out of somebody else’s pocket,” said Ginger Harris, the Sierra Club’s transportation co-chair. “We don’t think that a sales tax, even on motor vehicles, should be allocated to building highways. The taxes we pay on our books don’t go toward building libraries.”

The extra money routed by the amendment to the transportation department’s $1.8 billion budget would gradually increase over the next four years, from $60 million next year up to $160 million in 2009, when it would level off, according to Chamber of Commerce estimates.

While supporters admit Amendment 3, which is backed by both candidates for governor, would not raise enough money to end Missouri’s road woes, they argue it would restore credibility with voters and allow the government to return to them in the future to ask for a new source of revenue.

“Voters tell you they want this,” Gillespie said. “This is not going to be the be-all, end-all answer. It’s going to put Missouri on the right road.”

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