Transportation Sales Tax Loses Big: Urban Vote Leads 18% Defeat

Amendment 7 - St. Louis, MO 2014

Missouri voters soundly rejected a 3/4% sales tax increase Tuesday night that would have funded more than $5B in transportation projects across the state. Locally, the measure lost by nearly identical percentages in St. Louis City and St. Louis County, where it failed by 36% and 34% respectively. It also fell short in St. Charles County, losing by 25%.

First, the result is not simply about anti-tax sentiment. The politically lazy will say that Missourians don’t like tax increases. While several of the greatest defeats by percent came from the state’s rural, conservative, south central counties, the measure lot by the same margin in the state’s urban centers.

Far from sales tax-adverse, St. Louis City and County recently passed a 3/16% sales tax increase for the Arch grounds, parks, and trails. St. Louis County passed a 1/2% Metro transit sales tax increase in 2010 by a 26% margin, after a narrow defeat two years prior. The passage of that measure meant a previous 1/4% Metro transit sales tax increase approved by City residents in 1997 was enacted. An additional 1/4% sales tax levy specifically funds MetroLink light rail in the County, and another 1/10% is collected for regional parks and trails.

In the St. Louis area, sales tax has been a common method to fund regional priorities, not national and state roads. Given the heavy priority placed on highway and road infrastructure, cities and the urbanized areas of the state arguably lose the least if MoDOT lacks billions of additional dollars in funding. If the rural, more conservative portions of the state will always be a hard sell on a tax increase, it is simply one more argument for urbanized areas to localize both projects and funding.

Ultimately, the disconnect between those who would pay and those who would benefit appears to have been too great. That cross-state trucking would pay nothing for the projects, but a parent buying a toy truck would, likely hit a nerve. And whether you have an hour driving commute, or you walk to work, the new tax burden would have been the same on items purchased.

Raising taxes by constitutional amendment, rather than legislating an increase, may also have worked against the effort. It’s one thing to enshrine perceived rights into the state’s fundamental governing document, but adding a sales tax for the state department of transportation is another. To add to the list, the recent state income tax cut, roughly equivalent to what Amendment 7 would have raised, turned off some voters.

Local and aggregate project lists, meant to show voters exactly what would be funded, maybe have led to the amendment’s defeat as well. The St. Louis City list was focused on transit and pedestrian amenities, but lacked a signature project. The measure lost there by 36%. In the County, where virtually no funds were earmarked for transit, it lost by 34%. It’s not clear whether a transit-focused County list may not have helped the measure pass, or that a better City list would have done the same. However, voters weren’t only voting for their own project list, but on the entire state wide package.

One clue may be found in Kansas City. There, a late bargain was struck to avoid the possibility that two separate measures, if passed, would increase sales tax by 1.75%. The deal meant the Kansas City streetcar effort suddenly had more than $70M allocated, of a total $204M cost, on the MoDOT project list. In St. Louis, just $25M was allocated to the $297M streetcar proposal.

The proposal to establish a new taxing district to fund an expansion of the Kansas City streetcar line currently under construction, failed by about 20% Tuesday. Amendment 7 was a dead heat in that city, losing 18,715 to 18,926 votes (0.6%). St. Louis and Kansas City share many similarities, hinting that a signature transit project in St. Louis City and, or County may have delivered more support.

Amendment 7 school bus
{amendment proponents tried the “or else school kids will die” message}

There’s no singular explanation for the amendment’s failure. There’s no clear indication that counties along Interstate corridors, where most of the $5.4B would have been spent, went for the plan. Proponents raised $4M and crushed a school bus in their effort to convince voters to vote “yes”. Opponents raised $27K to tell voters the tax should be rejected.

We got to this point because special interest polling showed a sales tax would be a more popular option than raising the gas tax, or tolling roads. Just to make it to voters, the proposed 1% levy was reduced to 3/4% in hopes of being more appealing. Governor Nixon then assigned the measure to the August ballot while supporters had assumed it would be put to voters in November, which would have given them more time advocate its passing.

In the end, voters clearly stated that this was the wrong tax, at the wrong time, for the wrong purpose. Proponents of the effort profess to not have a “plan B”. While it’s anticipated that MoDOT will continue to pursue funding for the projects it says are desperately needed, it’s less than clear whether the City project list (or others) will live on.

Projects such as the St. Louis Streetcar, sidewalk improvements, Great Streets initiatives, and more could be funded by a local sales tax increase if they are considered to be high-priority. The project lists, though, were haphazard, compiled only as a result of the push to fund MoDOT, and not the product of local planning efforts. The result makes clear that voter’s opinions and project options have yet to align. Structural changes in society mean its likely voters will continue to prioritize transit options.

When MoDOT asked St. Louis area voters, 62% said they wanted to expand public transit. The St. Louis area project list allocated 95% of funds to non-public transit projects. 68% of City voters said “NO” to the region’s priorities. A full 20% of all votes recorded on Amendment 7 were cast by St. Louis County voters. That project list was 98% non-public transit. 67% of County voters said “NO”.

Six counties (Jefferson, Greene, St. Louis City, Jackson, St. Charles, St. Louis) accounted for more NO votes (260,584), than YES votes cast from the remaining 109 counties in the state. This simply highlights that the state’s urbanized areas control the outcome of statewide votes, if they speak clearly.

Perhaps this points to a way forward. Instead of asking “how much money can we get?” then, “how much can we build?” or “what do we have to promise in order to get highway funds?”, political and business leaders in urban Missouri must focus on projects voters say they support, and those that spur economic growth. Instead of reaching for a single funding source, they should lead an effort to chip away at diverse sources including raising the state’s fuel tax, tolls, and other fees. In 2002, Missouri voters defeated a measure that would have raised both the fuel tax and sales tax to fund highway projects. There’s no easy way forward.

Both St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley (who was steamrolled in the Democratic primary yesterday), and City of St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay ended up far on the wrong side of their constituents on this issue. Until the vision of urban leaders more closely reflects that of their constituents, none of our needed infrastructure investments will move forward.

Amendment 7 - St. Louis, MO 2014

Need more background on Amendment 7? nextSTL: Vote NO on 7: Continue the Conversation on Transportation Priorities