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Missouri lawmakers face looming deadline to solve transportation funding shortfall

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JEFFERSON CITY, Missouri — Missouri lawmakers finished their annual session without action on transportation funding, a priority of Republican leaders and Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon. But both sides say they will look to address any potential shortfalls next year.

The failure to act this session means Missouri stands to lose nearly $167 million in federal highway funds, because it won't have enough money to match all of its available federal dollars. Every $4 federal dollars requires $1 in state funds. According to Missouri Department of Transportation projections, even if lawmakers propose and enact a fuel tax increase early next session, it would not be enough to achieve the full match.

"I think we have to act next year because I believe we needed to act this year. MoDOT simply does not have the revenue to take care of our transportation system," Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey, R-St. Charles, said Friday. "Everybody's got a reason as to why one revenue mechanism won't work, and we don't need critics — we need problem solvers."

Unless collection of a higher gas tax begins in January 2016, the amount collected would not be enough to match all federal funds in 2017, according to MoDOT spokesman Bob Brendel. Lawmakers return in January.

MoDOT faces a steep drop-off in the state's construction contract budget for roads and bridges — from $685 million this year to $325 million in fiscal year 2017. Officials have warned that Missouri will only be able to fully maintain one-quarter of the state's 32,000-mile highway system while the rest of the system deteriorates.

Next year, a solution to the state's transportation funding will be a top priority, said newly-elected House Speaker Todd Richardson, R-Poplar Bluff.

"We'll be ready to come forward with solutions in January," Richardson said on the final day of the legislative session.

Proposals to increase the state's fuel tax faltered this year. A measure was rejected by a House committee and another failed to emerge from the Senate, despite top Republicans devoting significant time to the issue.

It ran into fierce opposition from conservative Republican senators opposed to an additional tax.

Nixon also threw his weight behind a Senate measure that gained narrow initial approval but never came up for a final vote. It would have increased the tax on diesel fuel by 3.5 cents and on other gas by 1.5 cents per gallon from the current 17 cents.

The increase would have taken effect Jan. 1 and brought in about $55 million for the state's highway fund in fiscal year 2017. That would have been enough to match all federal funds in 2017 but would have fallen short in subsequent years.

The measure would have also created a board to look into tolling along Interstate 70. Sen. Rob Schaaf, R-St. Joseph, pushed that provision but still opposed the tax increase without voter approval.

Supporters of the fuel tax acknowledge putting it on the ballot would likely doom the proposal. Missouri voters last year rejected a three-quarter cent sales tax increase for transportation funding.

Nixon, who opposed the sales tax, said paying for Missouri's roads and bridges through user fees is appropriate, noting the state's fuel tax had not increased in nearly two decades.

"I think everybody understands we've got issues to deal with by 2017," Nixon said. "It's one of those issues we'll continue to work with folks but it certainly hasn't gotten off my to-do list."

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