By DAVID A. LIEB
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) - The revenue generated by a 2004 voter-approved initiative in Missouri to fund better highways and bridges has not been enough to cover the bond payments it authorized for hundreds of projects, putting the state in a more precarious position for future transportation funding.
An analysis by The Associated Press also found that the amount redirected from the state road fund to the Missouri State Highway Patrol has surged since passage of the amendment, which exempted the patrol from its new limits on diversions.
The combination of the debt and redirected dollars means less money is available for traditional pay-as-you-go road projects. And that has left policymakers once again searching for ways to boost funding for a transportation system that has an estimated $800 million annual shortfall in its needs.
A bipartisan task force of lawmakers, executive officials and citizens faces a January deadline to recommend a transportation funding plan. Among the options it will consider is whether to create a dedicated funding source for the patrol to free up more money to be spent on road construction, said the group's chairman, Kansas City Republican Rep. Kevin Corlew.
Any plan significantly raising taxes would have to go before voters.
The last voter-approved transportation funding plan - November 2004's Constitutional Amendment 3 - gradually shifted half of the state's vehicle sales tax revenues away from Missouri's general fund, which pays for such things as schools and prisons, to a new bonding account for roads and bridges. (The other half of the sales tax already was dedicated to roads.)
The amendment also limited the amount of road funds that can be diverted to the Department of Revenue and other agencies. But it continued to allow money to flow to the Highway Patrol for its costs of enforcing vehicle and traffic regulations.
Sponsors of the initiative projected it would generate $160 million annually for roads and bridges once fully implemented in the 2009 fiscal year. State budget officials were even more optimistic, anticipating an additional $187 million annually for the highway system.
But actual revenues still haven't hit state projections.
After offsetting the additional vehicle sales tax revenues by the higher transfers to the Highway Patrol, the AP's analysis found that the Missouri Department of Transportation netted a $117 million gain for roads in the 2017 fiscal year compared to the 2005 budget. That's one-third less than the state originally anticipated.
The transportation department has had to draw more than $250 million out of its regular road funds to help cover $1.5 billion of Amendment 3 debt payments, because the initiative's funding account fell short in 10 of the past 12 years. In the other two years, more than $50 million of Amendment 3 revenues went to help cover other road bonds.
Supporters of the ballot measure were stunned to learn of the frequent Amendment 3 shortfalls.
"If MoDOT is not even able to sustain its current bond payments with the amounts generated, then there's something amiss. That shouldn't be occurring," said Jewell Patek, a lobbyist who had been campaign director for the Committee to Improve Missouri Roads and Bridges.
Initiative supporters also were surprised to learn that road fund expenditures by the Highway Patrol have grown by 73 percent after measure's passage - from $133 million in the 2005 budget to $230 million in the 2017 fiscal year.
"The idea was to increase money for transportation, not necessarily to increase funding for the Highway Patrol," said Ray McCarty, executive director of the Missouri Transportation Development Council and president and CEO of Associated Industries of Missouri.
Much of the Highway Patrol increase has been driven by salaries and benefits. That's because the enactment of Amendment 3 coincided with a separate law raising wages for state troopers closer to the rates paid at Missouri's three largest metropolitan police agencies.
Lawmakers who craft the state budget also have tapped road funds for other Highway Patrol costs, including a new statewide radio communications system, expanded crime lab functions and replacement of vehicles.
The patrol gets 71 percent of its budget from road funds, said Highway Patrol Maj. Lance MacLaughlin.
Missouri is one of 26 states that use road funds to help finance their highway patrols, according the National Conference of State Legislatures. But some states rely more heavily on other dedicated funding sources.
Patek said he believes the public would support another ballot measure similar to Amendment 3 "that would make it clear that transportation dollars only went to transportation funding" while creating a separate, dedicated tax for the Highway Patrol.
Such a plan could be placed on the ballot by legislators or an initiative petition. But proposed tax hikes have fared poorly in the past. Voters most recently rejected a three-quarters cent sales tax for transportation in 2014.
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