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

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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

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  • Jon

    The hypocracy of the No campaign is hilarious…..”users should pay for roads”. did tom shrout feel that way about sales tax for transit where users are paying for 19% and the none users are paying for 81% of the cost of each transit trip . And sales tax payers are users of the roads….drivers make up 90% of sales tax payers and the other 10% still use the roads as the metro buses don’t fly in the sky, they use the same roads and metro buses do not pay a fuel tax. Fed Fuel tax already pays for all the transit outlays made by the federal transit admin.

    • STLEnginerd

      I think at least a solid number could have supported a sales tax for roads… If Missouri didn’t have one of the lowest fuel taxes in the country and no toll roads. Meeting in the middle would an option for most.

  • reggie

    Not mentioned is the defeat for Sinquefield the puppet master of Slay and the defeated Dooley. He’s trying to control MO legislation with his pocketbook like the Koch brothers have done in Kansas. I think Missouri residents are getting tired of his shenigans.

  • matty_fred

    “The politically lazy will say that Missourians don’t like tax increases.”

    A lazy analysis will not address the heavy sales tax burden already bourn by the St. Louis region as a factor contributing to Amendment 7’s rejection by St. Louis voters.

  • STLEnginerd

    This map is fascinating. two areas of the state that couldn’t be more different blocked this proposal. What a weird issue that seems to span the traditional ideological dividing lines in this state.

    If there is a common thread i guess it would be who trusts MoDOT with a half billion dollars, and who doesn’t.

  • JMedeick

    Missing another big item here. The very conservative southern part of the state also voted strongly against the measure. If state republican pols can’t read their own voters then it is not surprise that the missed the mark so badly with urban and suburban voters.

    Seems to me that urbanists should seek out what appears to be a natural alliance with fiscal conservatives on transportation matters. Ask users to fund the improvements through tolling and vehicle registrations. Dump the gas tax completely. Give more local control of transportation improvements in the city and county by authorizing additional registration fees or gas taxes.

    • Don

      Conservatives hate public transit because, by the most charitable standard, they don’t use it.

      It’s very disappointing that City and County leadership doesn’t focus more on public transit. When will St Louis City and County pols figure out that the highway improvements they want to fund simply pay for St Charles and Jefferson County residents to drive through.

      • Alex Ihnen

        There is a Conservative argument for transit, but not really a rural one.

        • Don

          Of course. mass transit moves workers around efficiently and cheaply and spurs economic development everywhere it goes. What better way to spend public money, especially as compared to freeways?

          But I’m speaking of conservative voters. Can we agree that at least in MO, conservative voters do not vote for transit measures?

          • moorlander

            The problem we have here is that no one wants to pay for something they don’t/won’t use. Rural folks don’t want to pay for transit and urban folks don’t want to pay for highways. You saw that argument with PROP A a few years ago and saw the reverse argument on this site with in some comments about amendment 7.

          • John R

            I think this goes back to the point that A7 did not fund transit as a statewide priority like it did rural I-70…. it would be interesting to see what the vote total would have been if there was a hefty commitment to higher speed rail projects and urban transit networks (including Springfield and Columbia). Would it have garnered more urban votes overcoming likely fewer votes from the rural areas? There’s perhaps some evidence to cull from the A7 vote but it is hard to take away sweeping conclusions from it.

          • Don

            Well said. So when will the legislature figure out that it’s there job to pass a transportation funding bill even if it means making hard choices — like paying for government?

            My personal sense is that our situation in Missouri is hopeless. A legislature that can only attempt funding transportation by amending the constitution with what was actually a 10 year funding bill (while passing a $620M income tax cut) is beyond incompetent. They literally have no idea what to do now. This is what happens when term limits mix with conservative ideologues.

            Our existing infrastructure will be allowed to deteriorate over time to developing world status, save perhaps Interstates. Likewise for schools. Businesses will stop locating here. We’re 10 years from being Mississippi.

            To a great extent, we (the City and County) are on our own, and our own leaders transportation priorities are 20 years out of date.

          • JMedwick

            Then the obvious solution is to push for the region to take over transportation funding responsibilities from MODOT. Split the state up, devolve MODOTs responsibilities expect for the interstate system, amend the state constitution to allow the regions to use whatever methods they deem appropriate to pay for the transportation system desired. With this setup you have “local control” and better yet, rural voters don’t have to “pay for what they won’t use” is KC and STL (never mind that the metros subsidize the rural transportation network). Seems like the type of transportation funding setup urban and rural voters, conservative and liberal voters could support. With this system if the St. Louis region wants transit, we can figure out how to fund it in our own, supplemented by access to many possible funding streams to pay for it.

  • BudSTL

    This was a ham-handed move by the legislature and certain interest groups to shelter the real users of the transportation infrastructure in this state (truckers & commuters) from shouldering the burden of their own use. The mass transit component was small enough to be insignificant…this was a highway bill. As a citizen who drives less than 5,000 mi. per year on Missouri highways, it was a travesty that I should pay for this road & bridge project. The most insulting feature was the 10 year moratorium on gasoline taxes included in the bill. If we need to build roads & bridges…a gasoline tax is the only way to tax the actual users of the roads for the improvements.