State legislators discuss federal relief
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State legislators discuss federal relief

Date: January 28, 2009
By: Joel Walsh
State Capitol Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - A state Senate committee charged with overseeing the receipt of federal stimulus funds discussed a wide range of issues Wednesday surrounding the $809.2 million in federal relief that Gov. Jay Nixon has included in his budget proposal for fiscal year 2010.

The 13-member committee has been tasked with developing strategies to maximize and best use whatever funds the state does receive from the federal stimulus package, which was passed Wednesday by the U.S. House. The stimulus package has not yet received a vote from the U.S. Senate.

"It's up to the states to turn the economy around using the money (the federal government) provides," Paul Wilson, senior counsel to Nixon on finance and the budget, explained in a testimony to the committee. " ... They're going to send cash and hope that the state of Missouri can turn it around by using that cash to fund various programs."

Wilson said targeted programs could include infrastructure improvements such as extending broadband Internet service, addressing transportation needs and providing clean drinking water for rural residents. 

Republican senators such as Delbert Scott, R-Lowry City, have expressed concern over Nixon's budget that relies on funds not yet available and committing those potential one-time funds to ongoing state programs.

"I don't think it's ever wise to rely on the federal government, whether you're an individual or state budget," said Scott, the state Senate's longest-tenured member.

Scott added that he was apprehensive of allocating funds for programs that might be sustainable "when the Washington money dries up."

Columbia's representative in the state Senate, Republican Kurt Schaefer, echoed some of those concerns Wednesday.

"Initially the stimulus package was really kind of rolled out as a capital improvement, economic development (package)," Schaefer said, " ... and it seems to be morphing now into a smaller percentage for that and a larger percentage just to sustain programs, and I have serious concerns about that."

Schaefer acknowledged that if funding earmarked for certain ongoing or entitlement programs such as Medicaid is received, legislators would find a way to spend it. But, he added, in regard to Nixon's campaign promises to restore cuts made to state Medicaid program in 2005, "I think a blanket statement that you're going to put back everyone that was on Medicaid is a naive statement."

Health care is only one area where federal stimulus funds could be spent.

The committee has also assigned members to explore funding for education, housing and urban development and, perhaps most importantly, transportation.

In an interview Tuesday, Missouri Department of Transportation director Pete Rahn said his department, based on funding levels for various national programs and estimates from the U.S. Appropriations Committee, is predicting that $693 million of Missouri's total federal allotment would go toward meeting the state's transportation needs. He added that estimates from the U.S. Senate show a lower figure and emphasized that the overall stimulus package would likely not receive a vote until Feb. 16, when Congress recesses for President's Day.

According to Rahn, U.S. House members had considered earlier in the week appropriating $30 billion of a more than $800 billion package for road and bridge projects. Rahn noted that would be just more than 70 percent of an annual appropriation of $42 billion and less than 4 percent of the total stimulus plan. It was unclear Wednesday night how much the House set aside for transportation projects.

"This is not an avalanche of funding for roads and bridges that's going to solve our crumbling roads and bridges," Rahn said. " ... It's extra money that's very much appreciated, but it's not a silver bullet."

And for Rahn, the $693 million he expects in Missouri "is not going to address our overall problem with transportation in the state."

As far as how transportation dollars would be allocated in Missouri, Rahn said federal law offers a clear rubric that must be followed. According to him, $88 million would necessarily go toward infrastructure improvements in St. Louis, Kansas City and Springfield. He did not mention specific projects being recommended for mid-Missouri, but a news release identifying 34 potential projects showed construction of a $9 million bridge over U.S. 63 north of Route B as one possibility. $137 million of work on federal interstates could also directly affect Columbia residents, Rahn said.

While state officials are still unsure exactly how much funding will go toward transportation and other areas, the sentiment expressed by committee chair Scott Rupp, R-St. Charles County, is clear: "It looks like a huge pot of money will be coming."

Rupp said that although he might not be in favor of "trying to spend our way out of an economic downturn," the committee's role is to put the state in the best position possible to use those funds if and when they are received. 

He said Missouri lawmakers might consider design-build legislation to streamline the permitting process for transportation projects. A spokesman for U.S. Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer also suggested a quicker permitting process, as he said the federal stimulus package would likely include a clause requiring permits for various projects to be awarded with half of the funds received within 180 days of passage. 

A final concern, voiced by state Sen. Chuck Purgason, R-Caulfield, was whether federal stimulus funding would create the thousands of jobs that Nixon has anticipated.

Said Nixon's senior counsel Wilson: "If we can't create the one job you're talking about, then we have failed miserably."