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Policy: Budgets & Deficits

Transportation tax tops Missouri primary ballot

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Transportation,Associated Press,Taxes,Missouri,Budgets and Deficits

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — A Missouri primary that lacks competition for the only statewide office on the ballot nonetheless has generated considerable attention because of proposals seeking to raise taxes for transportation and create constitutional protections for farmers.

The biggest item being decided in Tuesday's primary is the proposed Constitutional Amendment 7, which would levy a three-quarters cent sales tax to fund more than 800 highway and transportation projects over the next decade.

If approved, it's projected to generate at least $540 million annually, making it Missouri's largest-ever tax increase. The measure also would mark a historic shift for a state that has relied for nearly a century solely on user fees such as fuel and vehicle taxes to fund its highways.

The ballot technically features a race for Missouri auditor, but incumbent Tom Schweich is unopposed in the Republican primary and faces no Democratic opposition. Five of Missouri's eight U.S. House members face primaries against challengers with significantly less name recognition and money. Just one-fourth of the 180 state legislative seats up for election this year have primary contests.

With few headlining political races, the public attention has focused largely on the ballot issues.

Voters were weighing the need for more road funding — the state's highway budget is projected to drop to $325 million by 2017 from a recent high of $1.3 billion annually — against the cost of a tax hike that could push the total state and local sales tax to near 10 cents on a $1 in some areas.

Without additional money, the Missouri Department of Transportation has said it eventually won't be able to adequately maintain the state's roads and bridges, much less undertake major new projects.

"I voted 'yes' because our roads are a mess, our bridges are a mess," said Karen Gerbes, 52, a self-described "lunchroom lady" for Jefferson City public schools.

Others were more concerned about the source of the money.

"I think we've got enough taxes already, and I think they need to spend their money more wisely," said Jamie Owenbey, 50, a state worker from Jefferson City who voted "no."

Construction contractors, labor unions, engineering firms and others who stand to benefit from increased transportation spending have poured more than $4 million into the campaign for the sales tax. They had outspent opponents by a more than 100-to-1 ratio heading into the final weeks of the campaign.

The opposition consisted of general anti-tax activists, as well as others who fear the sales tax could hit the poor the hardest while demanding nothing from heavy highway users such as trucking companies who ship freight across the state.

Proposed Constitutional Amendment 1, which would create a right to farm, also generated more than $1 million of spending between supporters and opponents.

The measure was referred to the ballot by the Republican-led Legislature, which wants to head off the potential for future initiatives restricting the way animals are raised or limiting the use of genetically modified crops. The measure also drew support from some Democrats and was financed by the agricultural industry, including the state's corn, soybean and pork associations.

It was opposed by some farmers, animal activists and environmentalists who said the amendment could shield corporate agriculture from regulations. Much of the opposition's funding came from the Humane Society of the United States, which helped sponsor a 2010 ballot initiative imposing tougher restrictions on dog breeders.

If the amendment is adopted, Missouri would become just the second state — following North Dakota — to declare farming a constitutional right.

Other measures on Tuesday's ballot would enhance the state's constitutional right to keep and bear arms and expand constitutional search and seizure protections to cover electronic data such as cellphones.

Another ballot proposal would create a Missouri Lottery game to benefit veterans' nursing homes and cemeteries. All lottery proceeds not used for prizes or administration currently go to education.

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