JEFFERSON CITY - Missouri's governor and legislative leaders battled over transportation funding on the same day a gasoline tax increase was reported to the full Senate for debate.
Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, offered a plan to fund a Transportation Department with 641 critical-condition bridges through savings from welfare programs.
His plan would divert what Schaefer predicted would be savings from legislation passed last year that imposed various restrictions on welfare programs.
Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, speaking from Peru in the governor's mansion, told reporters he was vehemently against the proposal.
"Trying to come up with some budget gimmick to take General Revenue and to slide some of that over to transportation is not a long-term transportation plan," Nixon said. "They're clearly searching for excuses."
Schaefer stressed the importance of addressing highway maintenance needs. "Our state's transportation infrastructure is deteriorating and has become an impediment to our economic growth potential, our regional competitiveness, and our citizens' safety," he said in a statement. "We need to invest in improving our infrastructure while making sure our tax dollars are spent responsibly."
Schaefer estimated his plan would generate $1-to-2 billion in state and federal funds during a ten-year period.The welfare-cut bill Schaefer cited as a source for new funding imposes a shorter life-time limit on one welfare program -- Temporary Assistance for Needy Families -- and toughen the work requirements for the food-assistance program for lower income.
Senate Republican Leader Mike Kehoe, R-Jefferson City, endorsed the idea.
"Missouri is home to some of the nation's top engineering and construction companies as well as research institutions with experts in every aspect of transportation," Kehoe said. "These are resources we can tap into and create an improved, more efficient transportation system."
In his January State of the State address to lawmakers, Nixon had attacked the idea for dealing with the transportation department's funding problems.
"I've been clear on my position: if you use the roads, you should help pay for them," Nixon said. "What I don't support is taking money that should go to schools, law enforcement and mental health, and using it to patch potholes."
A bill to raise the state's gasoline tax by 1.5 cents per dollar that was approved by the Senate Transportation Committee in January was reported to the full Senate for debate on Thursday.
Legislative staff estimate the bill would generate about $55 million per year for the transportation department.
The department, however, has estimated it needs nearly ten times that amount to fully maintain state highways.
In January of last year, the transportation commission approved restricting full maintenance to less than one-fourth roads and highways under the department's jurisdiction.
Missouri's 17.30 cent gas tax is almost 10 cents lower than the national average, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Last year, a gasoline tax increase measure similar to the proposal now before the Senate was defeated in a House committee and stalled in a Senate committee after winning initial Senate approval.