We couldn’t help but notice a concern voiced yesterday when Senator Jason Holsman of Kansas City raised a concern we haven’t heard for a while. This is not to say the concern hasn’t been there. But it hasn’t been voiced for a while.
Holsman was discussing Senator Mike Kehoe’s plan for a ten-year one-cent sales tax increase for transportation. He noted that the metro areas were concerned that they would be contributing far more tax money to the plan than they would get back. We used to hear that whine a lot from St. Louis on various issues and the State of Missouri used to similarly whine about being a “donor state” because we didn’t get back a dollar of federal highway funds for each dollar we sent to Washington. Senator Bond spent a good part of his career trying to tip the scales more favorably to Missouri.
The issue of being a donor area on transportation taxes has several angles to it, not all of them transportation. Partisan political philosophy also is a factor although it wasn’t spoken of in the discussion between Holsman and Kehoe.
First, some history.
In the early 1900s when the rapidly-increasing number of motorized vehicles was provoking interest in a system of cross-state roads, some of the early discussion suggested each county be responsible for building and maintaining its link in that system. The flaw in that argument was quickly noted and the idea was abandoned when a vision of a completely chaotic system of highways came into focus. Imagine a well-to-do county having an excellent paved all-weather road that immediately turned into two muddy ruts at the county line because the adjoining county didn’t have the economic ability to build something better.
Quite early on, the decision was made to establish a system of roads of varying qualities but uniform within each category. The Centennial Road Law of 1921 (Missouri’s centennial as a state) put us on the road to today’s roads.
About a century ago, Missouri set a course for a coordinated transportation system that relied on funding from all corners of the state, Some wealthy counties contributed more to the process than the poorer counties. Such commitments are the only way that a society can assure that both ends of its boat rise at the same time.
That system works in more ways that we realize. Imagine if our prison system relied only on the taxes generated in the counties where prisons are located. Imagine if our public schools relied only on the taxes generated locally. Imagine if the Highway Patrol was financed only by taxes raised in the county where the troopers live. Imagine what kind of a place Missouri would be if our mental health, social services, emergency preparedness, public safety, and other services were financed only by the money each county generated where those services were offered.
It has long been held that one reason this country is great is because of the standard of corporate responsibility that we share in making sure all of us are treated equally. Not a perfect system, but it beats the heck out of having each county responsible for its own roads, school system, and other services. In that system, some counties are givers and some counties are takers but all Missourians benefit from the total of the finances assembled.
All of this seems to be more or less commonly accepted. But there is at large in the Capitol a counter-theory that we hear regularly. “The people know how to spend their money better than we do,” say lawmakers who believe lower and lower taxes are the key to statewide economic vitality.
Suppose they make that political philosophy consistent, top to bottom, in state government. Surely counties and cities know better how to spend their tax money than the state does. Forget about putting a burden on the richer counties to raise funds for adequate highways and other services in the poorer ones. Let each county keep its own money because they know what’s best for themselves. That would really shrink state government.
But there’s one thing we’ve learned from watching our legislature for all these years. Our lawmakers are not going to be consistent in this philosophy. They’re not going to let counties keep their own cuts of the new highway tax or any other tax. They could do it but they don’t have the impetus to do so.
At least, not until Kansas does it first.