Monday, November 26, 2007

Transportation Funding Looms as Major Issue for Lawmakers

Missouri lawmakers are mulling over the latest report from the director of the Missouri Department of Transportation. The director is required by state law to submit an annual report to the Missouri General Assembly each November.
Director Pete Rahn says Missouri has gone from having the third worst pavement on major roads to the ninth best in the nation, with 74 percent of the state’s major roads in good condition. MoDOT’s annual report finds Missouri recorded the biggest drop in traffic-related fatalities of any state last year, while noting an increase in customer satisfaction with the agency from 75 percent in 2005 to 79 percent in 2006.
Sen. Bill Stouffer, R-Napton, who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee and co-chairs the Joint Committee on Transportation Oversight, says MoDOT has done a lot of good things with the extra money the department received from Amendment Three, which voters approved in 2004.
“If you look at the work of MoDOT over the last three years since Amendment Three, there’s been a marked difference in Missouri’s roads,” Stouffer said. “We have improved safety – the guard cables have done a tremendous job of cutting down head-on collisions on the interstates while the rumble strips have reduced run-off accidents by 25 percent or more.”
Sen. Frank Barnitz, D-Lake Spring, agrees with Stouffer’s assessment.
“The public conversations I’ve had indicate people are very impressed with a lot of the projects that are going on - we’ve seen a lot of road improvements as well as bridge improvements,” Barnitz said.
Rahn, however, warns of a major funding shortfall by 2010 due to stagnant state and federal funding, and increases in construction, maintenance and fuel costs. He’s forecasting a drop in funding from $1.23 billion in 2008 to $569 million in 2010.
Sen. Barnitz says lawmakers need to spend some time explaining the projected funding shortfall to the citizens of Missouri.
“When Amendment Three was passed by voters, the conversation I had with a lot of my constituents is they thought they had voted to move money to MoDOT projects, and they didn’t understand that what they actually did was allowed for bonding to take place so these projects could go ahead,” Barnitz said. “So when 2010 comes and I go back to them and say we don’t have enough money to continue our highway program, I think it’s going to be kind of a hard sale.”
Sen. Stouffer says now is the time to begin looking for solutions to the projected shortfall.
“We’ve got to look at funding and come up with the best combination – we’ve got to do something to figure out how we’re going to fund our infrastructure,” Stouffer said. He says it’s too early in the process to outline specific proposals but says it’s important to get the conversation started.
Rahn says the drop in funding will make it difficult to maintain our highways, much less to address congestion, safety and economic development concerns. To view MoDOT’s annual report to the Joint Committee on Transportation Oversight, visit http://www.modot.mo.gov/newsandinfo/reports/2007AccountabilityReport/index.htm.
An audio version of this article is available at:
http://www.senate.mo.gov/05info/press-room/thisweek.html.
For more information about this and other legislation in the Missouri Senate, visit www.senate.mo.gov. To contact Senate Communications, dial (573) 751-3824 or send an email to newsroom@senate.mo.gov.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Joint Committee on Tax Policy To Review Tax Credits And Property Taxes

The Joint Committee on Tax Policy will hold a public hearing Tuesday, November 13 in House Hearing Room 7 of the Capitol. The ten-member committee, evenly divided between Representatives and Senators, works to ensure Missouri’s taxes are simple, fair, neutral and transparent.
Committee member Brad Lager, R-Maryville, says a cornerstone of responsible government is making sure lawmakers are good stewards of taxpayer dollars. Lager says he does not believe in creating new government programs “just to hand out money,” and says the same philosophy should apply to tax credits. Lager says each tax credit approved by lawmakers is the same as creating a new government program that must be funded each year. However, he says unlike most government programs that are reviewed each year during the appropriations process, tax credits are only reviewed each six years.
Fellow committee member Joan Bray, D-St. Louis, says lawmakers are beginning to review the more than $500 million dollars in tax credits issued by the state. Bray says the Senate Appropriations Committee began to take a hard look at tax credits last year and refused to renew two of them, something she says has never happened.
Bray says tax credits are popular in Missouri because the state’s tax rate is among the lowest in the nation, meaning the state cannot afford to fund programs offered in other states. She says the Joint Committee on Tax Policy will pick up where the Appropriations Committee left off in reviewing the myriad tax credits and exemptions offered by the state.
The panel also plans to study the way property taxes are assessed and collected in Missouri. Both Bray and Lager say that when political subdivisions fail to rollback property tax levies after an increase in assessments, that amounts to a backdoor tax increase. The issue has exploded in the St. Louis area in recent years, and Lager says he’s beginning to hear similar complaints in his rural, northwestern Missouri district. Both Lager and Bray think lawmakers can come up with a plan to ensure taxpayers are treated fairly and equally across the state.
The Joint Committee on Tax Policy will meet at 10 a.m. in House Hearing Room 7 on Tuesday, November 13.
An audio version of this article is available at: http://www.senate.mo.gov/05info/press-room/Audio/2007/ThisWeek/thisweek110507.mp3
For more information about this and other legislation in the Missouri Senate, visit www.senate.mo.gov. To contact Senate Communications, dial (573) 751-3824 or send an email to newsroom@senate.mo.gov.



# # #

Interim Committee Holds Field Hearings on Deputy Sheriffs’ Compensations

Last September, lawmakers on the Senate Interim Committee on Funding for County Sheriffs Offices met in a packed hearing room at the State Capitol in Jefferson City before county law enforcement officers from around the state. They heard testimony on the problem of low pay for many deputies in county sheriff departments. The response was so large that committee members decided a series of field hearings was necessary to gather more information on the issue.
This week, the committee met in Southeast Missouri’s Wayne County, part of the district of committee member Sen. Rob Mayer (R-Dexter). He says too many deputies have to work 50-60 hours a week as deputies and then take another part-time job just to make enough money for their families. Fellow committee member Sen. Ryan McKenna (D-Crystal City) says despite working the multiple jobs, many of those struggling deputies still have to go on food stamps and other public assistance.
Sen. McKenna says it’s really a matter of having the resources within those counties to pay decent wages. He says many of the poorer counties cannot afford a tax increase, and even if they could, there’s not enough of a tax base out there to make a hike worthwhile. Sen. Mayer suggests that the legislature could change the law to allow those sheriffs departments to charge more for some of the fees they can collect, such as the fees for serving people with court papers. Sen. McKenna agrees that would be a good way for counties to raise revenues without a tax increase, and he says the state needs to look at the number of under-funded or unfunded mandates it is putting on the local sheriffs, such as the holding of prisoners.
Both men expect the issue to be a hot one when the legislature comes back into session next year and hope they can convince their fellow lawmakers of the urgency in which it needs to be dealt.
An audio version of this article is available at: http://www.senate.mo.gov/05info/press-room/Audio/2007/ThisWeek/thisweek111207.mp3.
For more information about this and other legislation in the Missouri Senate, visit www.senate.mo.gov. To contact Senate Communications, dial (573) 751-3824 or send an email to newsroom@senate.mo.gov.