POLITICS: Campaigns

Analysis: Missouri ballot could have 2 tax questions

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Associated Press,Taxes,Politico,Missouri,Campaigns

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — For the first time in a generation, Missouri voters next year will be handed a general election ballot with no candidates for president, U.S. Senate or governor.

Yet despite the absence of those traditional high-profile races, Missourians still could face some taxing choices that could trigger a statewide debate about jobs, roads, schools and essential state services.

It's possible that the November 2014 ballot could contain two major initiatives — one proposing a 1-cent sales tax hike for transportation, the other proposing a broad-based income tax cut.

Supporters of the transportation tax already have submitted their initiative to the secretary of state's office and are raising money to start gathering petition signatures as soon as the secretary of state gives the go-ahead. Supporters of the income tax cut also are talking about pursuing an initiative after lawmakers this year were unable to override a veto of a tax-cut bill by Gov. Jay Nixon.

If both measures make the ballot, they could command most of the attention in next year's election, when the state auditor's race is the only statewide executive office on the ballot. The election also would carry this interesting quirk: Supporters of the tax cut and the tax increase both would be arguing that the measures would spur the economy.

"I don't know that anyone has a crystal ball to really read what the outcome of that kind of an election would be," said Randy Hagerty, chairman of the political science department at Truman State University in Kirksville.

Hagerty added: "For the most part, we're a low tax, low expenditure kind of state."

That means a proposed tax cut might start with an advantage in the polls. But as Nixon demonstrated this year, an aggressive campaign can spike a big tax cut by asserting it would devastate funding for public schools and valued services.

By the same reasoning, a proposed tax increase might start at a disadvantage in the polls. But voters in city and county elections have shown a willingness to approve taxes targeted toward specific infrastructure projects — a model that supporters hope to replicate statewide with the transportation sales tax.

Missouri last put a transportation tax increase on the ballot in August 2002. It was defeated resoundingly.

But circumstances have changed since then, said Bill McKenna, a former state senator and transportation commissioner who now is co-chairman and treasurer of the group backing the initiative, Missourians for Safe Transportation and New Jobs.

Most notably, the Missouri Department of Transportation has changed. In 2002, the department's public perception was poor for having failed to fulfill a 15-year road plan that had been accompanied by a fuel tax increase. Since then, the department has used an influx of voter-approved bond revenues to address part of its backlog of road-and-bridge needs. It's also cut staff, equipment and facilities and redirected the savings to transportation projects.

But the agency's long-term funding is still billions of dollars short of what's necessary to complete its project list.

The 2002 measure proposed both a one-half-cent sales tax and a 4-cent fuel tax and was placed on the August primary ballot. The 2014 measure raises only the sales tax and is aimed at the November ballot.

By targeting only one type of tax, McKenna hopes the measure draws less opposition. And by targeting the November general election, he hopes it draws more people to the polls.

"I think this issue, transportation, is something that impacts everybody in Missouri and the plusses, in my opinion, are certainly pretty good once you can get that message across to Missourians," McKenna said.

By going to voters in 2014, supporters might also be able to buy more advertisements at a lower price than they would if the ballot were crowded with candidates for governor, senator and president. That could put the public focus squarely on the initiative.

That's why supporters of an income tax cut also are eying the November 2014 ballot. The group Grow Missouri filed an initiative Friday that would trigger an automatic income tax cut if Missouri exceeds a proposed cap on tax credits. It plans to file additional ballot initiatives in coming weeks cutting income tax rates for businesses and individuals.

Grow Missouri Treasurer Aaron Willard said if the Legislature doesn't act on a tax-cutting plan early in the 2014 session, the coalition is prepared to push forward with an initiative campaign.

"If there's a better year, I'm not aware of one" to pursue a ballot initiative, said Travis Brown, a lobbyist for Grow Missouri. He added: "The ballot at the top next November will be issue-driven and not candidate-driven."

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