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State aid for Metro may be in jeopardy, says Senate leader

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 6, 2009 - The Senate isn't likely to take up a package of projects funded with federal stimulus dollars until debate over the state's operating budget is complete. But one of the Senate's top Republicans says the bill -- which includes $12 million to help St. Louis' Metro transit system -- is in jeopardy.

In fact, Senate Majority Leader Kevin Engler, R-Farmington, used even stronger language to handicap the bill's chances of making it through the Senate.

"Jeopardy? No," Engler said after being asked whether he thought the bill was in jeopardy. "I think it's pretty well dead."

The package of projects rose from the legislative ash heap on Monday after a Republican lawmaker maneuvered to bring the bill back up for debate. The House then overwhelmingly voted to send the bill to the Missouri Senate.

Besides the money for Metro, the bill also includes funding for a law enforcement communications system, the Ellis Fischel Cancer Center in Columbia and the public defender system. The Senate also added some projects in committee on Tuesday, including $50 million in incentives for battery-making companies.

The legislation passed out of the Senate Appropriations Committee on Tuesday. Senate President Pro Tem Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph, said the Senate won't take the bill up until the legislature is finished with bills funding the state's operating budget. That might not happen until Friday.

But Engler's grim prognosis stems from debate on unrelated legislation. A bill that would have issued $800 million worth of bonds to pay for a number of construction projects, for example, was tabled on Tuesday when several conservative lawmakers engaged in a filibuster.

"I can't believe those same people wouldn't have an adverse reaction to spending $300 to $400 million in a week where they haven't even vetted" the projects in the bill, Engler said.

Engler said it would better for the Senate to do its "due diligence" and examine the projects more carefully over the summer. After taking that closer look, Engler said it would better to hash out the legislation during a special session coinciding with the legislature's annual veto session.

"We're not talking about 10 or 15 bucks; we're not talking about lunch money," Engler said. "We're talking about millions and millions of dollars. I would think we would do more due diligence than just a 24-hour look-at. But maybe not."

Metro officials are lobbying for the state money in the wake of dramatic cuts after St. Louis County voters declined to pass a sales tax increase. Some -- such as Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder -- have said the funding is necessary to prevent some citizens from losing their jobs. Gov. Jay Nixon also says he supports state money for Metro. 

When asked how he would respond to those arguing for the need to pass the projects bill quickly, Engler drew a comparison to a family's budget. He said the legislature must be cautious, especially when next year's budget could be even tougher.

"My family has a lot of wants," Engler said. "My first kid comes up and says 'I want a car.' OK, go get a car. And the next one comes says 'I want to go study abroad.' And you give him money to go study abroad. And third one comes up and says, 'I want food.' Oh, nope. Sorry. We've already spent money on the car and the studying abroad. So you don't get food."

"I think we better analyze the whole need," Engler added, noting that the state could face a deficit over $1 billion in the near future. "I'd say by this fall, we'll have a better idea where the finances are."

Since the Senate made changes to the original bill, it would go back to the House if it were passed.

Read the Beacon's earlier story:

The prospect of $12 million in state funding for Metro lives -- at least another day.

At a hearing of the Senate Appropriations Committee on Tuesday, the money for Metro was kept in a bill, which includes other projects to be funded with federal stimulus dollars.

The Senate committee took up the legislation less than a day after the bill was resuscitated by the Missouri House. The legislation unexpectedly went down to defeat on the Missouri House floor last week, but came back after a law-maker successfully maneuvered for a revote.

State representatives then sent the bill to the Missouri Senate, where it faces a Friday deadline for passage.

While several projects -- a Jefferson City interchange and a program to help high school dropouts in St. Louis -- were taken out of the bill, a staffer for the committee announced that the $12 million allotment for Metro would remain.

After the announcement, Sen. Yvonne Wilson, D-Kansas City, sought $8 million for the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority. Wilson said her phone was "ringing off the hook" from constituents asking for state help.

"It's a crisis in both cities," Wilson said.

But Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Gary Nodler, R-Joplin, beat back the amendment, noting that the move would spur other cities with struggling mass transit systems to ask for funds.

"I've heard this request," Nodler said. "That request led to another request from Springfield. And then that began to lead to other requests. And based on the ever-expanding size of Santa Claus' bag, I will be recommending a defeat of this amendment."

Wilson's amendment was defeated by voice vote.

Ultimately, the committee passed the bill with a 10-0 vote. It now heads to the Senate floor for consideration.

Read the Beacon's earlier story:

State assistance for Metro is back on track -- at least for now -- after the Missouri House took the unusual step of resurrecting a bill that includes a number of projects to be funded with federal stimulus dollars.

The House voted down a legislative package on Thursday that included a $12 million allotment for St. Louis’ Metro mass transit system. The money was meant to alleviate cuts made March 30 after voters in St. Louis County failed to approve a sales tax increase last November. The bill now goes to the Senate.

Also included in the bill were $111 million for a statewide police communications system, $31.2 million for the Ellis Fischel Cancer Center in Columbia and $2 million for public defenders.

After the bill failed, House Majority Leader Steve Tilley hinted that the measure could be brought up again if somebody made a “motion to reconsider.”

Rep. Tim Jones, R-Eureka, successfully executed that maneuver on Monday evening, bringing the bill up again for a vote.

After roughly an hour of debate, the chamber approved House Budget Chairman Allen Icet’s bill 117 to 42. That’s a significant shift from Thursday's vote, when the bill failed by an 82-68 margin.

Icet, R-Wildwood, said he worked hard to explain the whole legislative package to his caucus, telling them that the measure went beyond projects paid for with federal stimulus dollars. Included in that mix, Icet said, are some debt repayment, conservation projects and funding for state veterans' homes.

“What I tried to do is explain to members that they need to understand what the entire bill does,” Icet said. “And if you don’t like one line item of the bill, my opinion is I don’t think it’s a good reason to vote against the entire bill.”

But Icet conceded that the Metro funding was a point of contention for some. An earlier draft of the bill had $20 million for the program, which was less than the $35 million that had been requested.

“I said, ‘I just don’t think that’s doable,’” Icet said about the $35 million request. “You have to come to a point of what’s reasonable. And everybody’s definition of reasonable is different. I thought $35 million would sink that, definitely. Even $20 million people thought was entirely too much. And some members on the floor think $12 million is too much. In fact, some members think ‘zero’ is the right number.

"The higher the number, the higher the likelihood that members at this end will say, ‘This is too much,’” Icet added. “There is a balancing act. And Metro seems to be the lightning rod of all the items in the bill.”

Rep. Chris Kelly, D-Columbia, attributed the bill’s comeback to a tenacious effort by a coalition of lawmakers: Lawmakers from St. Louis and mid-Missouri “worked their tails off all weekend because they cared about these things.”

“They cared about Metro, they cared about cancer research and they cared about plant science,” Kelly said. “And we turned this sucker around in the face of some very, very tough opposition.”

Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, a Republican who had actively supported funding for Metro, said, "Tonight, I applaud legislators in the House who voted overwhelmingly to reconsider and pass House Bill 22.

"Over the past four days I have spoken with a number of legislators, Republicans and Democrats, and discussed our common goals of putting more Missourians back to work. Despite opposition from some political leaders, our legislators made a strong commitment to expand Missouri's workforce.

"The projects that will be funded by these one-time dollars will create jobs while making drastic improvements to Missouri's transit, health care and public safety systems."

Kinder urged the Senate to pass the bill.

Jason Rosenbaum, a former state government reporter for the Columbia Daily Tribune, contributes to Missouri Lawyers Weekly and KBIA radio in Columbia. 

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.

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