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House bill with Metro funding voted down

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 30, 2009 - A $12 million allotment for St. Louis' Metro transit system received a serious blow on Thursday when the Missouri House voted down a bill including Metro and other projects to be funded with federal stimulus dollars.

Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder alleged in a conference call shortly after the vote that Gov. Jay Nixon had been working behind the scenes against the bill.

"This is an open secret in the House of Representatives,'' said Kinder, a Republican. He gave no explanation as to why Nixon, a Democrat, opposed financial aid for Metro.

But Kinder said that many Republicans had voted for the bill with the Metro aid, while some Democrats had voted against it.

Could Metro funding be revived?

It is possible for lawmakers to bring the bill back up for debate by issuing a "motion to reconsider." That's when a lawmaker asks a bill to be brought back up for debate and for further amendments.

Such a motion, said House Majority Leader Steve Tilley, R-Perryville, must be made within two or three legislative days. That would mean state Rep. Allen Icet, R-Wildwood, would have to bring the bill up again by sometime early next week.

And if Icet wants to bring the bill back up, Tilley said he would be more than happy to oblige.

"If [Icet] comes to us and says I want to get this bill done, I can assure you that we're going to be able to get it done," Tilley said.

Speaker Pro Tem Bryan Pratt, R-Blue Springs, said that the legislation would have to undergo  changes to get out of the House.

"There's certainly going to have to be some changes," Pratt said. "There are some problems with that bill, there are some problems with the budget. We're going to see if we can negotiate."

Joining Kinder on the call were state Rep. Ted Hoskins, D-St. Louis, and state Sen. Jane Cunningham, R-Chesterfield.

Hoskins said that Nixon "cannot be silent on this issue ... I implore the governor to come on board.''

Nixon press secretary Scott Holste acknowledged today that the governor opposes HB 22, which contained the money for Metro. But Holste said the issue wasn't any single project, but the overall pricetag of the bill.

"A bipartisan group of representatives, including 32 Republicans, today indicated that spending an additional $336 million would be irresponsible,'' Holste said in a statement. "While the governor supports Metro funding, he agrees with the Legislature that the current bill simply costs too much."

Hoskins said that Metro's service cuts has forced some riders to wait hours for a bus to get to work "or they can't get to work at all." Metro also has cut 500 jobs, he said, some of them held by residents in his district.

Another St. Louis legislator, state Rep. Jamilah Nasheed, went even further. In a letter to Nixon, she asserted that the governor has “essentially ignored the plight of blacks in the City of St. Louis.”

“Your silence on this issue -– for which the word ‘huge’ is no understatement -– amounts to a callous and even cavalier attitude toward the St. Louis metropolitan area,” Nasheed wrote. “Certainly by now you are acquainted with the data demonstrating the harmful economic impact of the drastic reduction in transportation services by Metro, and sure you recognize the pain this is causing so many who are striving with all their meager resources to survive -– to keep their jobs -– in this economic climate.”

Cunningham said that many businesses in her far West County district have been affected because their employees from the city or close-in suburbs have no transportation. The loss of those jobs means the loss of state income tax dollars that go to other parts of the state, Cunningham added, noting "the St. Louis area is the economic engine for the state."

Kinder has been actively involved in the effort to get state money for Metro for weeks, and said that lack of state help -- and lack of support by the governor -- is threatening jobs for "the working poor and the disabled'' who depend on public transportation to get to work.

Kinder denied that his accusations against Nixon were political.

On Wednesday, Rep. Rachel Storch, D-St. Louis, got passed via voice vote an amendment allocating $12 million for Metro into a bill with a number of capital improvement projects. The money was meant to assist Metro in the wake of substantial budgets cuts.

The package of projects was initially passed 97-56 and was expected to clear another vote to send it to the Senate. But in a move that caught some lawmakers off guard, the bill was voted down 82-68 on Thursday. Numerous Republicans joined a sizable cadre of Democrats voting down the measure.

Storch -- who voted for the bill -- said it's "pretty late in the session with a ticking clock" to pass some of the projects funded in the bill. In addition to Metro, the legislation featured funding for the Ellis Fischel Cancer Center in Columbia, money for a statewide police communication system and $2 million to help the state's public defender system.

"If I had a crystal ball, I would say either that money is going to lapse and we'll come back to it next year or we're headed toward a special session," Storch said.

House Budget Chairman Allen Icet, R-Wildwood, said some members of his caucus had "heartburn" over some of the projects. There was a perception, he said, that the projects were an example of needless spending.

"Going from the previous versions to this, I tried to focus on what I consider critical projects for the state," Icet said. "I'd like to ask the people who voted against it how will we find the money and pay for a statewide interoperable system (a communications system for law enforcement)? Because as I stand here, I do not know."

House Speaker Pro Tem Bryan Pratt, R-Blue Springs -- who voted against the bill -- said Republicans became fed up about how the legislation became an arena for local pork projects. He singled out the Metro allocation as an example.

"The Metro bill may have killed the bill on its own," Pratt said. "I'm not aware of any plan right now for the longtime sustainability of the Metro. They were looking for an infusion of cash without any plan to say they're not going to need the cash need year or the year after."

Read the Beacon's earlier story below:

Rep. Rachel Storch was successful on Wednesday at procuring roughly $12 million worth of federal stimulus money to help St. Louis' ailing Metro system.

The funding was placed into a House bill full of projects funded by the federal stimulus, which has been the center of controversy over the past week. Other projects that made it into the bill include a $111 million communications system for the state's law enforcement officials, $31.2 million for a cancer hospital in Columbia and roughly $2 million to help the overburdened public defender system.

Storch and other proponents of Metro got the $12 million by taking the money from funding for ethanol incentives. House rules stipulate that amendments increasing funding must take money from another source. Rural lawmakers were assured that the depleted ethanol money would be restored in the state's operating budget.

The amendment was adopted through a voice vote. Although more members seemed to shout "aye," a few rural lawmakers loudly shouted "no."

Metro was primed to receive $20 million in an earlier version of the stimulus bill. But that was a victim of trims made to pave the way for a $1 billion cut in the state's income taxes.

Storch, D-St. Louis, said while the funding wasn't enough to make up Metro's shortfall, it was a good start.

"We just need to move forward to look prospectively at what we can to do to make sure there is oversight and accountability in place, but to also make sure that [Metro] has the funds it needs to allow it to provide transportation service in the St. Louis region," Storch said on House floor.

The requirement that new money come from another program stymied other efforts to get even more money for Metro. Rep. James T. Morris, D-St. Louis, attempted to procure funds earlier on Wednesday. But his bid failed because the funding source - an office building in Jefferson City - had already been depleted.

Democrats then challenged the procedure, arguing that the bill went through the Rules - and not the Budget - Committee. But those motions were ruled out of order.

After the voice vote on Metro funding, the House voted to approve the list of projects by a vote of 97-56. After receiving final approval, which is likely to come on Thursday, the bill will head to the Senate for further tweaking.

Items included in previous versions of the spending bill that failed to make it into this incarnation include money for a new headquarters for the State Historical Society, funds to refurbish the Missouri Supreme Court Building and roughly $50 million to construct the aforementioned state office building in Jefferson City.

Tax Cut Prospects

Earlier this month, House budget writers crafted several bills with a multitude of projects funded with federal stimulus money. The effort seemed to dovetail with a House Republican desire to spend stabilization funds on "one-time" capital improvement projects.

But House Speaker Ron Richard, R-Joplin, announced a drastic course change last Thursday, stating that there had been a revolt with his caucus over what was seen as excessive spending. He announced a new direction under which the House would come up with a smaller list of projects and try to use nearly $1 billion worth of stimulus money to lower the state's income tax.

The spending plan and the tax cut are now separate endeavors. The list of projects is in a separate House bill that will likely be voted to the Senate tomorrow. The tax plan is attached to a Senate bill that still has to be approved by the House before returning to the Senate.

There is a widespread belief in Jefferson City that the income tax cut will not pass. Senate Republicans have reacted negatively to the plan, stating they would be more inclined to save stimulus funds for the next fiscal year. A spokesman for Gov. Jay Nixon also said the plan was not a fiscally responsible approach to the stimulus money.

Unusual Path for Spending Bill

Still, the capital project bill took an unusual course to get to the House floor so quickly. Richard sent the legislation to the House Rules Committee, a panel that usually determines whether legislation makes it to the floor.

House Budget Chairman Allen Icet, R-Wildwood, and other Republicans said they placed it before the Rules Committee to get the bill through the process in time.

"We will not have time go through standard procedure here in the House," Icet said on Thursday.

During a hearing of the committee on Monday, Democrats raised a point of order, arguing that the bill belonged in the House Budget Committee. After the chairman ruled against them, the panel's Democrats walked out in protest.

House Minority Leader Paul LeVota, D-Independence, was also critical of the proceedings. "I find it objectionable that people would use House rules at their own discretion - and not be consistent about it - so that we can use federal funds," he said on Wednesday. "This whole appropriations process is a circus."

Later during the Rules Committee meeting, House Majority Leader Steve Tilley, R-Perryville, cut a $31.2 million allotment for the Ellis Fischel Cancer Hospital in Columbia from the bill. That project was in the city represented by one of the Democrats who walked out of the hearing - Rep. Stephen Webber, D-Columbia. The funding, however, was eventually restored.

A Questionable Future

When asked if there was enough time for the project list to pass, House leader Tilley said it would be "close."

"I wouldn't say it's likely, but I think it's possible," Tilley said. "And we're going to try and give it the best possible chance that we can."

Rep. Chris Kelly, D-Columbia, said the capital bill's unusual procedure made it "unlikely" that the measure would pass. But that doesn't necessarily mean the bill is completely doomed.

"The capital bill has a better chance of passing ultimately in direct proportion to how open and participatory the debate is," Kelly said. "The process itself leaves something to be desired."

Kelly criticized how the new spending plan was handling, arguing that it cut into both Icet's - and the House's - credibility. He also predicted that the tax cut plan would fail, freeing $1 billion for the next fiscal year.

In any case, the bill will likely undergo changes when it hits the Missouri Senate. That's according to Senate President Pro Tem Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph.

Shields, however, said there was enough time for the bill to go through the process before the Friday deadline.

"In terms of the bill when it gets to the Senate, I don't think its origin or wherever it started ... will make a difference to the senators," Shields said.

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.
Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.

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