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Record tornadoes, floods may not be enough to tap Rainy Day Fund

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 14, 2011 - If ever there was a need to tap Missouri's Rainy Day Fund of $500-plus million, this spring's seemingly never-ending series of natural disasters would seem to be a natural.

But even though many public officials and groups are publicly or privately calling for its use, the constitutional restrictions make it almost impossible, said state House Speaker Steve Tilley, R-Perryville.

Any major use of the Rainy Day Fund -- set up by voters in 2000 -- requires approval of two-thirds of the state House and the state Senate.

But the biggest obstacle, says Tilley and others, is that the repayments must begin the next year -- and the total amount must be repaid in equal amounts over three years, plus interest.

Such hefty and swift repayments, particularly during tight economic times, makes it less attractive to use the Rainy Day Fund.

Tilley said in an interview that it might be preferable to allow the repayments to be made over a longer period, such as seven or eight years. But altering the schedule would require a constitutional amendment, which must be approved by the voters.

A legislative committee has been discussing the best response to the disasters. But even if the General Assembly were to agree to changing the Rainy Day Fund's repayment schedule, the legislative process would likely mean that such a payment change could not go before voters until 2012, at the earliest.

So any such changes wouldn't help the state's current challenges, as it figures out how to come up with the money to pay for cleanup and reconstruction needed in the wake of tornadoes hitting Joplin and St. Louis County, flooding around the state, and levees breached -- intentionally or by nature -- along the Missouri and Mississippi rivers.

"My gut feeling is, we're going to have to live within our current parameters,'' the speaker said.

Gov. Jay Nixon signaled as much Tuesday when, in response to questions from the Beacon, he played down the prospect of asking the General Assembly to approve Rainy Day Fund money for disaster relief.

"We'll look at the most effective way to spend taxpayer resources," the governor said, noting that he set aside $50 million in the state budget that goes into effect July 1. But Nixon did so by cutting proposed spending for various other programs, notably in education.

Nixon said his administration first wanted to get a firm handle on how much money the state needs to respond to the round of disasters. The extent of the damage is still being determined, he said, particularly in Joplin, where more than 6,000 houses were destroyed.

Once some firm financial numbers have been reached, Nixon said he then would consider talking to legislators about how best to confront the needs. Whatever he requests, the governor said, will be "transparent'' to legislators and to the public.

The governor, a Democrat, may be seeking to avoid the problems that confronted a predecessor, fellow Democrat Bob Holden, when he sought to tap the fund in 2002. The General Assembly -- which then had a Republican-controlled Senate and Democratic House -- declined the request. Now, the GOP controls both chambers.

On one point, both parties agree. When it comes to natural disasters, said Nixon somberly, 2011 "has been 'our year.' ''

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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