Lawmakers who have returned this week to Jefferson City face no shortage of challenges. Everything swings on the state's ability to bring COVID-19 under control as quickly as possible.
We urge lawmakers to take whatever steps they can to expedite distribution of and access to the vaccines, and that includes a measure that would permit dentists to administer COVID-19 vaccinations according to state rules. State Sen. Bill White, R-Joplin, wants to provide some liability protection for health care operations as well as businesses that switched manufacturing in order to make products related to the pandemic, such as hand sanitizer. His proposal makes sense on the surface, although the devil will be in the details as they are hammered out by lawmakers. It's worth discussing, but we'll reserve judgment for now.
Some lawmakers this year have proposed limiting the ability of local officials to close businesses, require masks or issue other health-related orders. That's best left to local control, and we don't think there's a role for lawmakers or a need to get involved.
Funding for K-12 and higher education must remain a priority, despite the projected $400 million drop in general revenue. Health care, too, is front and center, with additional costs because Missouri voters expanded Medicaid last summer. The state has options for raising revenue — Missouri's cigarette tax is low-hanging fruit. The tax of 17 cents per pack is not only the lowest in the country but imposes additional burdens in the form of higher health care costs. In other words, this low tax is costing us money. We could go up by $1.60 a pack and still be below the national average. As we have argued before, there waits hundreds of millions of dollars that could be used for health care and education.
Highways and bridges, too, must also be addressed. Here again, Missouri has options. While we have the seventh-largest highway system in the nation, we also have one of the lowest gas taxes at just 17 cents per gallon. Senate President Pro Tem Dave Schatz, R-Sullivan, wants to put a proposal before voters boosting the gas tax by 2 cents per year, for five years, taking it to 27 cents. That would still be below the national average. This is an increase Republicans could get behind, as gas tax increases have been endorsed by Gov. Mike Parson and the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
By the way, one study concluded Missouri is losing $8 billion annually because of rough roads, fuel waste caused by congestion, and traffic accidents; for Southwest Missouri, the study put the cost at $1,500 annually per driver. Another instance of a low tax actually costing us money.
All we ask is that some percentage of that additional transportation revenue, should it be approved, be committed to providing matching grants for communities and organizations that want to develop trails, prioritizing the 140-mile Rock Island opportunity that awaits on the south side of the Missouri River.