1996 was the last time the gas tax was raised in the state of Missouri. In the two decades since, a lot of things have changed.
We called it the Pumpkin, in honor of its brilliant orange paint job. We bought it at a junkyard in Kansas, one of those places where a fat guy in a beard and greasy overalls can locate just about anything in acres of truck rims and engine blocks. We mounted a used box and hoist on the Pumpkin, and we were in the trucking business. 6 miles a gallon, 600 bushels a trip, and a “safety” switch that would ring twice before shutting the engine off at the most inopportune times. That was in 1986, and the Pumpkin was still hauling grain in 1996.
1996 was the last time the gas tax was raised in the state of Missouri. In the two decades since, a lot of things have changed. Like most farmers, we’ve replaced our straight trucks with semi-trailers, allowing us to haul more bushels while burning about the same amount of diesel. Folks driving cars have become more efficient as well, seeing increased mileage and lower fuel purchases for the same amount of driving. Not to mention the increased number of electric cars on the road, cars that pay no gas tax at all.
Meanwhile, the price of building and maintaining roads has increased year after year, decade after decade. In 1996, the cost of a ton of Portland Cement was $65 a ton; today cement costs about $115 a ton. Wages have increased, medical costs have skyrocketed, and everything that goes into building and maintaining our roads has become more expensive. The overall buying power of our fuel tax is less than half of what is was in 1996.
Most farmers are just like us. Driving a truck for 20 years, even though the truck was old enough to qualify for a driver’s license when you bought it at a junkyard, is the way we remain in business. We know how to squeeze everything possible out of a dollar, and then some. I love to tell the story of my grandfather and me tearing out fence in the early 1980s. I asked him how old the wire was. He replied: “well, I don’t rightly know. It was used when I built the fence in 1936.”
Farmers are not as a rule impressed when government agencies ask for more money. In fact, we’re pretty sure that they have more than they need, and don’t watch taxpayers’ dollars as carefully as we manage expenses on our farms. That’s almost always correct, and to demand that government respect taxpayers is not only our right, but our duty.
Sometimes, though, there are no alternatives to increasing funding. Our roads are in disrepair, over 600 bridges in Missouri are in critical condition, and many of us drive extra miles to get our grain and livestock to town because the bridges we need to use have restricted weight limits. The Missouri Department of Transportation isn’t perfect, far from it, but they’ve laid off well over a thousand employees in the past few years, shut highway barns, and sold equipment, making the sacrifices necessary to live within their means.
In rural Missouri we worry that we won’t be treated fairly when highway funds are spent. We at Farm Bureau have worked hard to make sure that allocation is fair, but political realities do matter. If we starve the highway department long enough, the loser will be rural Missouri, because limited resources will have to be spent where the people, traffic, and the votes are. And that isn’t the lettered roads we depend on to get our grain to town.
Farm Bureau will be supporting higher funding for the state patrol and Missouri highways and bridges this fall, and hope you will as well. The ballot measure will restore funding to the level we had in 1996 and will make sure that alternative fueled vehicles pay their fair share. It’s time to protect the roads and bridges that taxpayers like my grandfather built.
Nothing is more important to rural Missouri than good roads and bridges. We finally retired the Pumpkin, replacing it with a newer used truck. It’s time we updated the funding for our roads and bridges as well.
Blake Hurst, a farmer from Westboro, Mo., is also president of Missouri Farm Bureau, the state’s largest farm organization.