House budget plan keeps Rock Island Trail development funds

      The state House has voted to preserve more than $69-million in federal dollars to support development of another hiking and biking trail on a former railway.  That funding survived two attempts to redirect it over concerns some House members have about its use.

Representative Tim Taylor (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

      Governor Mike Parson (R) recommended that appropriation, which would use funds from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA).  It would pay to revitalize a 78-mile stretch of the former Chicago, Rock Island, and Pacific Railroad corridor, commonly referred to now as the “Rock Island Trail.”  Work would include the stabilization of tunnels and bridges. 

      Bunceton representative Tim Taylor (R) said his family owns property along the Katy Trail, Missouri’s other hiking and biking trail along a former railway.  He said he’s seen how communities have benefitted from being along that trail.

      “It has brought a sense of small prosperity to our community.  When the railroad left, as it did on the Rock Island, much of the town ceased to exist.  We have prospered and those towns and cities along the Rock Island are going to prosper just like the Katy Trail.”

      The Rock Island corridor runs through Bland, hometown of Representative Bruce Sassman (R).  He said hiking and biking trails are engines for economic development, and this is Missouri’s chance to expand them.

Representative Bruce Sassman (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

      “I have been working on this Rock Island development project for 35 years, almost half of my life, and it’s a vision to create a trail system and a trail route that is unlike anything in the country and maybe in the world.  I wish you could see this project through my eyes.  I wish you knew the history of this project,” said Sassman.

      Taylor and Sassman were among those who spoke against amendments that would have blocked that $69-million from going to the trail.  One of those, offered by Chillicothe Republican Rusty Black, would have diverted that money to maintenance that has been deferred on other Department of Natural Resources’ properties.

      “In my eight years up here, every year we have had this fight with DNR about maintaining what we already have.  This is a one-time use of funds that, if we spend it on the trail, is going to further dilute the sales tax money that they get to use to maintain all of the other parks in the state,” said Steelville Republican Jason Chipman.  “What we have already is in bad shape and we could put a big dent in the maintenance needed for all of the other parks that bring in a whole lot of people to Missouri rather than partially work on this one.”

      “I think there’s arguments to be made for and against the Rock Island Trail,” said Representative Dirk Deaton (R-Noel), the House Budget Committee’s vice-chairman.  “I think it’s compelling to me as a conservative, as a fiscal conservative, you’ve got to take care of what you’ve got before you start taking on new things – building new things, acquiring new things, setting up new things, and we do have a substantial maintenance backlog within our state parks and so I think we really ought to address that before we do this, and then you can get to the question of, ‘If we do this.’”

Representative Scott Cupps (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

      Another amendment was offered by Shell Knob Republican Scott Cupps.  It proposed that the money be withheld from the project until lawsuits involving property owners along the Rock Island route are settled.

      “The rationale for that is there is concern that we will spend millions and millions of dollars on this project and, depending on what happens in federal court, we may not be able to complete it until this is resolved,” said Cupps.  “If you stand up for land owners’ rights and property owners’ rights … then you sure as heck better be a ‘yes’ on this.”

      Cupps noted that there were similar legal disputes for people who owned property along the Katy Trail, which he says weren’t settled until 11 years after that trail opened.

      Lawmakers who want work on the trail to proceed argued that those lawsuits’ outcomes will have nothing to do with Rock Island’s development.

Representative Jason Chipman (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

      “This is not about converting it back to ownership by these folks who are suing.  They simply seek to reclaim the money for land that was never part of their farm in the first place, whenever they purchased it,” said Representative Don Mayhew (R-Crocker).  “These lawsuits, this is a red herring.  It has nothing to do with it.  The state can proceed with this.”

      In the end the House voted down those amendments 53-81 and 62-70, respectively, and then voted to keep the money for the trail project in the budget. 

      Some, like Representative Jim Murphy (R-St. Louis), were glad to move forward that spending proposal.

      “When I leave here I think it’d be nice if I could look at one thing and say, ‘We did this for the future.  We did this for this state.  It’s long lasting.  We didn’t spend it on frivolous things.  We didn’t buy shiny objects.  We built something that our citizens can use now and in the future,” said Murphy.

      The House voted today to advance that spending plan to the Senate.

House plan would ease late payment penalties, interest, in response to surprise tax bills

The House has given preliminary approval to giving Missourians a break on late payment of taxes, because many Missourians might have been surprised this year with a higher-than-anticipated tax debt.

Representative Dean Dohrman (photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

“I’m also frustrated with the situation that brought us here, but today we can’t do anything about that,” said La Monte representative Dean Dohrman (R), the sponsor of House Bill 1094“But today, as Winston Churchill once said, ‘We can do the best we can with what we got.’”

HB 1094 would block late payment penalties on tax debt owed to the state by individual taxpayers through the end of this year.  It would also waive any interest owed on such debt until May 15.  For those who might pay penalties before the bill would become law, it would require that those Missourians receive refunds.

The bill is a bipartisan response to an issue with the Department of Revenue’s tax tables that resulted in many Missourians being faced with greater debt than expected.  Lawmakers heard stories of individuals who anticipated a tax refund from the state instead getting hit with bills for hundreds, or even thousands, of dollars.

Representative Nick Schroer (R-St. Charles) is the vice-chairman of the House oversight committee that’s been investigating that situation.  He said the Department’s explanations have changed, and he blames its former director, who resigned last month amid the crisis.

Representative Crystal Quade (photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

“We still don’t really know the true cause of what is happening.  We’re still digging and trying to figure that out, but I think this is one way that we can lessen this tax burden on these people who … dollars count to these people, whether it’s diapers, groceries,” said Schroer.

That oversight committee has continued to schedule hearings to investigate what caused the problems and how the Department responded.

House Minority Leader Crystal Quade (D-Springfield) also sits on that oversight committee, and pre-filed similar legislation in December.  She said the Department knew about the tax issue as early as September yet didn’t act for months to notify taxpayers.  She said she’s frustrated the House is only now taking action.

“Tax day’s in five days.  If folks in this body … I mean I hate to say it; if we were really concerned about these surprise tax bills and what was happening to citizens, we would’ve dealt with this much, much sooner,” said Quade.

“I heard time and time again from the director of revenue as well as the liaison that this isn’t a lot of money – that we’re talking an average of $85 or it could be upwards of several hundred dollars, and as I said before we have [legislative assistants] in this building who are seeing swings of $3500,” said Quade.

Lawmakers including Columbia Democrat Kip Kendrick, another oversight committee member, want Missourians to understand that their issues with tax debt might not be over after this year.

Representative Nick Schroer (photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

“If they’re concerned with their bill this year then they need to go back and look at their W-4 because next year, 2019, their current year, it’s going to be a full four quarters of potential under-withholding and not just three quarters,” said Kendrick.

Republicans, including Noel representative and oversight committee member Dirk Deaton, maintain that while some Missourians could see greater tax bills this year, changes in the federal tax code mean their overall debt is down.

“Missourians are keeping more money in their pockets, so we’ve got to fix this withholding thing but at the end of the day Missourians, as they should, are keeping more of their hard-earned money,” said Deaton.  “That’s what I think people need to realize.”

Another favorable vote would send HB 1094 to the Senate.