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Government, Politics & Issues

To spend or not to spend? Stimulus money puts Missouri GOP in a quandary

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 20, 2009 - Gov. Jay Nixon says that billions of dollars in federal stimulus money is a pathway toward transforming Missouri's economy and infrastructure.

But to state Sen. Scott Rupp, R-Wentzville, the stimulus money is more like a wild party that will eventually end -- with the cleanup having monumental consequences for future budgets.

"I think a real, real good discussion needs to be had. Do we even want to go to the dance?" said Rupp, who is chairman of the Senate committee monitoring the stimulus package, earlier this week.

Even as Nixon embraced the federal stimulus plan, Republicans who control the General Assembly were skeptical. Some, such as Rupp and House Speaker Ron Richard, R-Joplin, openly suggested that stimulus money should be sent back.

On Thursday, Richard conceded that rejecting the stimulus money was a nonstarter.

"A lot of people around the Capitol [are] beginning to want to spend money, you're right," Richard said. The possibility "that the money will be sent back is probably not realistic, at least from what I hear from the Republicans."

Besides, it's the governor, not the legislature, who decides whether to accept, or reject, the money. The legislature can only intervene if the governor rejects the funds.

Still, Republicans who control the legislature will have prominent roles in directing the stimulus money. That's because the much of the federal money will have to be appropriated, which is up to the discretion of the legislature.

"We look forward with working with our compatriots in the legislature and having a dialogue to maximize Missouri's opportunities here," Nixon said. "There are a lot of checkmarks here where the chief executive of the state has to sign off. But that's not the point. This is a collaborative process in which we bring Missourians together."

PHILOSOPHICal RIFT

Nixon's embrace of the stimulus is in marked contrast to the Republican reaction.

The national Republicans have taken a harshly critical view of the federal stimulus bill. Only three Republican senators voted for the bill; no GOP members supported the legislation in the House. Prominent GOP governors, like Mississippi's Haley Barbour and Louisiana's Bobby Jindal, have wondered whether they'll even accept the money.

Like many of his GOP colleagues in Congress, U.S. Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer, R-St. Elizabeth, has characterized the measure as "a partisan political package that promotes big government and sticks our families with the bill."

Many Republican officials in Missouri have adopted a similarly dim view of the federal package. On Thursday, for instance, Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder sharply criticized Democrats for pushing the legislation through so quickly that legislators couldn't study it.

"I am appalled by the process in Washington, D.C.," Kinder said.

But even though Kinder was critical of how the stimulus bill was passed, he stopped well short of calling for a rejection of the funds.

"I'm going to work with the Democrats and the Republicans on the stimulus coordination committee to try and make it work for our state," Kinder said.

Marvin Overby, a political science professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia, said some governors -- such as South Carolina's Mark Sanford -- might talk about rejecting the stimulus money for purely philosophical reasons. Other sitting governors -- like Jindal or Barbour -- might be trying to burnish their conservative credentials for future races.

"They might be setting themselves up to be able to make that claim at either the state or the national level if they're trying to raise their profile for the Republican nomination for president in 2012," Overby said.

But for Missouri legislators who don't have the decision-making power to accept or reject the stimulus money, Overby said, a hard-line position has no real risks.

"They're essentially playing the position-taking card," Overby said. "They can stand against it on principle, gather whatever political chips are there for standing against it on principle and then get the money, too. I think that's much easier to understand than what some of these governors are doing."

THE PROCESS BEGINS

The total amount of money that could be coming to the state from the stimulus isn't clear. That's because some money -- for environmental improvements, energy production, science and health care projects and job training programs -- is awarded through competitive grants. Some stimulus money -- for transportation projects or food stamps -- goes straight from federal coffers to the state agencies.

Still legislators will direct much of the money through the appropriations process.

"This bill will require a high-level of cooperation between the General Assembly and the executive branch," said Paul Wilson, a member of Nixon's budget team. "The money goes into the state treasury. To get it out, you've got to have a ticket. And that's called an appropriation."

On Thursday, House Budget Chairman Allen Icet, R-Wildwood, said staffers are still going through details about distributing the money.

"The real challenge is getting our hands around what requirements the federal government has such that we can access the money," Icet said.

DEBATE OVER ONE-TIME MONEY

The Republicans say they are most concerned about infusing one-time stimulus money into ongoing programs.

Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, brought up an example from the Columbia public school system. That's when the board spent money in its reserves to pay for employees. The budget decision prompted a tax levy vote, which failed by a significant margin.

"We can't get ourselves into the exact same situation on the statewide level, which would be expanding otherwise unsustainable programs with one-time money," Schaefer said. "And then in 24 to 27 months, [we would have to] go back to the voters and say, 'OK, now we need a tax increase to sustain these programs.'"

"You defeat the purpose of a good, public debate on what's a good program and what's not simply by putting the public in the very defensive posture of 'give us this or else,'" Schaefer added.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Gary Nodler, R-Joplin, said earlier this year that he feared that the state would become addicted to federal funds.

"You don't want (the federal stimulus money) to be like a shot of heroin that causes a dependency and causes withdrawal," Nodler said.

Richard reiterated Schaefer's point that he wanted the funds to be used for one-time projects, such as building or road projects. "We're still convinced that one-time expenses, one-time use of the funds is where we want to go," he said.

Nixon said most of his proposals don't require an ongoing commitment. He added that increasing money for Medicaid or food stamps is a temporary reaction to the worsening economic situation.

"The real magic here is the one-time expenditures that give us a true opportunity to make an economic pivot to the future, which we're preparing just to do," Nixon said.

Wilson said some examples of Nixon's proposals are laying broadband lines through rural Missouri and job training programs.

For his part, Rupp said that Nixon's approach was promising.

"It seems like pretty good parameters," Rupp said. "Now that was a generality. But, hey, those are the generalities we're looking at, because they are one-time in nature or have a minimal cost to carry through."

Overby said that a cautious approach might be the wisest approach.

"Certainly the safest thing would be to spend the money on one-time investments that you hope have a multiplier effect and kick-start private economic activity in the state," Overby said. "It's a dangerous ploy to commit yourself to ongoing expenditures with one-time money."

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

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