Money flowing to Missouri transportation tax group

Associated PressJuly 13, 2014 

— Millions of dollars have been flowing into a Missouri campaign for a transportation sales tax from businesses and organizations that stand to benefit if voters approve the Aug. 5 ballot measure.

During the past six weeks, the campaign committee for proposed Constitutional Amendment 7 has received more than $2.3 million in large chunks ranging from $7,500 to $160,000 at a time.

Much of the money has come from highway construction contractors, who could gain hundreds of new projects worth billions of dollars over the next decade. Significant amounts also have come from labor unions that would perform the work, engineering firms that would design the projects and others whose products would be essential to the job, such as heavy equipment dealers and concrete and asphalt producers.

"To me, it shows that this is a special interest tax, and it doesn't have grassroots support among average Missourians," said Thomas R. Shrout, who is treasurer of a comparably low-budget campaign against the ballot measure.

The industry contributions could be considered a high-risk, high-stakes investment.

History has shown that Missouri voters are highly skeptical of tax increases. The last time a new transportation tax was on the statewide ballot, in August 2002, many of the same businesses and organizations contributed to a campaign that spent more than $3.7 million promoting the measure. Yet voters overwhelmingly defeated it by more than 72 percent.

A loss again this year could leave the transportation industry with little chance of recouping its multi-million-dollar campaign investment from a Missouri Department of Transportation whose budget is rapidly shrinking.

But if voters approved the three-quarters-cent sales tax, state and local governments could receive between $5.4 billion and $6.1 billion of new tax revenues over the next decade. Nearly all of that would be earmarked for transportation projects.

"It's a significant amount of steady work for a long period of time that will help us — and I think help Missourians, too," said Bruce Wylie, president and CEO of the American Council of Engineering Companies of Missouri. "That's why we're pushing so hard and contributing at levels we've never done before."

Wylie said engineering firms have a target of contributing about $500,000 toward the campaign effort.

Engineering work for road and bridge projects has traditionally been done by MoDOT staff. But the agency has eliminated 170 of its 1,001 engineering positions in recent years amid a general cost-cutting effort. As a result, the department has more than doubled the amount of engineering work handled by private-sector contractors to 25 percent of its total.

If the transportation tax passes, MoDOT would have to use even more engineering contractors, said department spokeswoman Holly Dentner.

Many engineering firms have been struggling to line up work because of the economy, Wylie said.

"This is perfect timing for our industry, if this measure gets through," he said.

Highway contractors are in much the same situation.

As the economy faltered and MoDOT's workload began declining, construction contractors have been consolidating their businesses, shutting down or looking outside of Missouri for work, said Jack Atterberry, president of the Associated General Contractors of Missouri.

The potential boon from a 10-year transportation tax hike is obvious.

But "it's not just purely a profit-driven motivation for our members to support this campaign," Atterberry said.

He compared construction contractors to physicians, who care both about their own income and their patients' health.

"We're the same way. We don't want to go broke doing it, but we want to provide the citizens of Missouri with safe roads and bridges, good transit facilities and economic development," he said.

So far, Missourians have seen little to show for the big money being poured into the campaign effort.

The committee, Missourians for Safe Transportation and New Jobs, has produced several colorful fliers but has yet to start broadcasting advertisements. Those are still to come in the final couple of weeks before the election.

By contrast, the opposition group Missourians for Better Transportation Solutions, expects to report this coming week that it's raised a total of about $4,000, Shrout said. He said opponents are hoping to raise about $20,000, with the goal of mailing fliers to homes in the St. Louis area.

David A. Lieb has covered state government and politics for The Associated Press since 1995. Follow him at https://twitter.com/DavidALieb

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