Highway funding fight could run MO Gov. Parson’s I-70 expansion plan off the road

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Missouri Gov. Mike Parson’s push to spend $859 million to expand three key portions of I-70 – near Kansas City, Columbia and St. Louis – is at risk of running out of gas amid a bureaucratic fight over who, exactly, controls state highway dollars.

The Missouri Department of Transportation, led by a governor-appointed commission, faces a backlash from Republican lawmakers after the commission filed a lawsuit that seeks a ruling giving it firm authority to spend hundreds of millions from the state roads fund without legislative approval. The dispute centers on the meaning of a five-word phrase in the state constitution that lawmakers are trying to remove to undercut the lawsuit.

The fight over highway funding, and a Republican-led proposed constitutional amendment that would give the Missouri General Assembly more power over transportation dollars, will come to a head in the coming weeks as lawmakers work to approve a budget and will decide whether to fund widening I-70 to three lanes in three locations.

Some Republicans appear ready to fight full funding for the expansion. They are angered by MoDOT’s lawsuit and say other projects are also pressing in a state that often falls behind on road maintenance. The Republican governor’s I-70 proposal enjoys support from Democrats, however, making it difficult to predict whether the legislature will limit funding for the project.

Beyond the immediate standoff over I-70, the outcome of the conflict holds potentially sweeping consequences for how transportation needs are funded in Missouri and who decides what highways get expanded and repaired. If GOP lawmakers prevail in passing the amendment , the General Assembly will gain more influence over the maintenance of the state’s highway system.

“This is dramatically changing how we fund highways and bridges in this state,” state Rep. Steve Butz, a St. Louis Democrat, said earlier this month.

Butz, who sits on the Missouri House Transportation Accountability Committee, said MoDOT’s projects are planned and carried out over many years. If highway funding is suddenly subjected to the year-to-year whims of lawmakers, it will make it much more difficult to implement a transportation strategy, he contended.

“You know we go through these budget fights, you know how hard it is. MoDOT funding should not be tied to that,” Butz said on the House floor.

But critics of MoDOT’s lawsuit say the agency shouldn’t be able to dodge legislative oversight and that the appropriations process is a powerful tool for holding bureaucrats accountable for how they spend “the people’s money.”

State. Rep. Don Mayhew, a Crocker Republican who chairs the House Transportation Accountability Committee, during an interview Monday dismissed worries that legislative control of the state roads fund could politicize highway planning.

“It seems to me your chances of there being that kind of thing going on versus our normal budgetary process are more likely with a politically-appointed commission,” said Mayhew, who is sponsoring the constitutional amendment.

The Missouri House approved Mayhew’s amendment, HJR 37, in a 101-45 vote on March 7. The Missouri Senate has yet to debate the bill. If lawmakers approve the measure, it will go to a statewide vote, which could be months from now.

Tom Crawford, president and CEO of the Missouri Trucking Association, a group which has been pushing to expand I-70 for the last decade, said he fears that the ongoing funding fight will block the widening from moving forward.

“It’s a concern to a lot of us that are interested in trying to get adequate infrastructure funding to MoDOT,” he said. “MoDOT has kind of had some issues with respect to their relationship with the legislature. And I think that’s kind of rearing its head in some of these proposals and discussions going on at the Capitol.”

The Missouri Constitution says money in the state road fund, which includes revenue from vehicle related fees and some of the state gas tax, is spent by the Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission, a six-member board that oversees MoDOT. The bipartisan board is appointed by the governor and five of the six current members were named by Parson or Republican Gov. Eric Greitens. One member was appointed by Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon.

The constitution says the fund “stand appropriated without legislative action” – seemingly indicating the General Assembly can’t tell the commission how to spend it. Mayhew’s amendment would repeal those words and add a requirement that state roads fund be spent “pursuant to an appropriation by the general assembly.”

In the fall of 2021, MoDOT, citing recruitment problems and non-competitive wages, sought to implement pay increases for its employees above what lawmakers approved and planned to use dollars from the state road fund to pay for them. But the Office of Administration, an executive branch agency under Parson’s control, refused to provide assurances that it would certify payments from the fund to cover the pay plan.

The Highways and Transportation Commission then sued the Office of Administration commissioner, who leads the agency, in Cole County Circuit Court. The lawsuit seeks a court ruling that the Office of Administration can certify payments from the state road fund to salaries, given the current language in the state constitution.

The lawsuit, filed in December 2021, remains unresolved. The last hearing was held in February 2022 and both sides have been waiting since then for a judge to rule.

Parson spokesperson Kelli Jones declined to comment, citing pending litigation.

Parson’s highway priorities questioned

The proposed I-70 expansion provides lawmakers with immediate leverage over MoDOT and Parson, however.

The proposal was a signature initiative in the governor’s State of the State speech and budget rollout in January. Rejection of the expansion by the GOP-controlled General Assembly would be a political blow to Parson, who has emphasized infrastructure spending during his time in office.

Parson has framed his I-70 proposal as a necessary response to congestion, though researchers dispute the idea that highway expansions are a long-lasting solution. The Kansas City-area portion of the project would center on an approximately 20-mile portion of highway between Blue Springs and Odessa – a stretch where the eastern edges of suburban development begin to bleed into more rural areas.

Parson has asked the General Assembly to fund the widening with general revenue dollars, not with the contested state roads fund. The request comes at a moment when Missouri is flush with cash – approximately $6 billion is available to spend. While using general revenue bypasses thorny questions about spending authority, it also means lawmakers have control over how much, or how little, to fund the expansion.

Some of the same Republican lawmakers advancing the amendment are also uncomfortable with the spending proposal. They fear Missouri is foregoing federal funds that could help with the cost of the project. Other highways, such as I-44, also need improvement as much if not more than I-70, they contend.

“It’s kind of hard for me to go back there (southwest Missouri) and say, ‘well, we’re prioritizing I-70 even though I-44 has as much, if not more, commercial traffic,’” state Rep. Scott Cupps, a Shell Knob Republican, said earlier this month.

Other lawmakers want to spend more money on I-70, however, and widen the highway across the entire length of the state.

State Sen. Bill Eigel, a Weldon Spring Republican who is exploring a run for governor, has proposed creating an “Interstate 70 Improvement Fund,” to be used by the Highways and Transportation Commission for the sole purpose of improving the highway. The money in the fund would be appropriated by lawmakers.

Still, Eigel said he supports lawmakers having more control of MoDOT funding.

“We’re seeing MoDOT operate almost as an independent agency of government, and it’s very difficult as the people’s representative to have input and accountability over that process,” Eigel said.

MoDOT spokesperson Linda Wilson Horn said Monday that the agency “will scale the project appropriately” depending on how much funding is provided. Asked about the constitutional amendment, she pointed a reporter to previous comments by MoDOT director Patrick McKenna opposing the amendment.

Missouri Department of Transportation director Patrick McKenna speaking to legislators.
Missouri Department of Transportation director Patrick McKenna speaking to legislators.

McKenna told a Missouri House hearing in February that the constitution as currently written helps take politics out of the selection project selection process. Project selection involves regional and metro-area planning groups and isn’t done “behind closed doors,” he said.

Additionally, contractors hired by the state to perform road work need certainty that Missouri will come through with promised funding, McKenna said.

“It gives us the ability to plan and to construct over a multi-year period. This is critically important,” McKenna said.

Crawford, the Missouri Trucking Association president, echoed McKenna, saying having the Highways and Transportation Commission in charge of decisions removes politics from the discussion. He fears that placing lawmakers in control would only politicize future projects.

“I fear that we’re going back to those politically-led discussions more so than kind of looking at where the needs are now and letting the data drive the results,” he said.