Republicans determined to strip the Highways and Transportation Commission of its long-standing control of the multibillion-dollar state road fund are closer to getting their chance.
On Wednesday, the House gave initial approval to legislation making the fund that combines fuel taxes, license fees and vehicle sales taxes to maintain highways subject to annual appropriations. It needs to be approved one more time in the House before going to the Senate.
During debate Wednesday, state Rep. Don Mayhew said his proposed constitutional amendment was triggered by a lawsuit filed by the commission when the Office of Administration refused to honor raises that exceeded the amounts budgeted by lawmakers.
“Had the lawsuit never happened, I probably wouldn’t be standing here today,” said Mayhew, R-Crocker. “If we don’t take action now, and the courts find out they are correct, there will be no oversight save what is built into the commission process.”
The funds entrusted to the six-member commission that controls the Department of Transportation, by the Missouri Constitution, “stand appropriated without legislative action.” The provision has been in the constitution since the 1920s.
If the bill passes both legislative chambers it would go on the November 2024 ballot unless Gov. Mike Parson sets it for an earlier vote.
A state fuel tax enacted in 2021, plus more money from federal highway funds, means the state has more money than ever for road construction and maintenance. The current 5-year plan for state road needs includes more than $10 billion in funded projects.
Mayhew’s proposal would allow the department to spend only what lawmakers allowed in annual appropriations.
The lawsuit in Cole County seeks a declaration from Judge Cotton Walker that, in essence, the department doesn’t need appropriations at all. The triggering issue was raises intended to be a market adjustment throughout the department, so that 65% or more of its employees are at or above the midpoint in the pay range for their job.
MoDOT paid the 7.5% raises provided to other state employees last year and will pay the 8.7% raises that begin with this month’s paycheck. But when the lawsuit stalled – Walker heard arguments on Feb. 10, 2022, and has yet to make a ruling – turnover spiked, MoDOT Director Ryan McKenna said in a committee hearing last month.
“Turnover rates rose to a crisis level, with 70 employees leaving per month,” McKenna said.
During Wednesday’s debate, Democrats argued for leaving the constitution unchanged and allowing the raises to occur.
State Rep. Deb Lavender, D-Manchester, said the department has repeatedly asked lawmakers to allow raises to stem turnover. The result, she said, is a shortage of 700 snow plow drivers and the litigation.
“It just seems like we do things backwards,” she said.
Other reactions to the lawsuit among Republicans have ranged from calls for McKenna to be fired to warnings that it must be dropped so lawmakers will approve Gov. Mike Parson’s proposal to spend $859 million in surplus general revenue for new construction on Interstate 70.
The lawsuit isn’t the only legislative grievance with MoDOT, Mayhew said during debate. His rural central Missouri constituency is upset with poorly maintained minor roads and newly introduced J-turns and roundabouts.
But the large raises and the lawsuit, coming just months after the imposition of tax increase without a public vote, is too much to tolerate, he said.
“If they get the decision they want in court, there will be no need for them to show up for budget hearings,” Mayhew said.