This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 7, 2009 - After going through a legislative labyrinth, the Missouri Legislature acted late Thursday to approve a federal stimulus bill that includes $12 million in one-time aid for the St. Louis area's financially troubled Metro transit system.
The bill, HB22, now goes to Gov. Jay Nixon, where a spokesman said earlier Thursday that the governor remained concerned about the bill's $381 million price tag and "will review it very closely."
Spokesman Scott Holste emphasized, however, that Nixon supported the aid for Metro -- a point the governor made himself in an interview earlier this week.
The package was approved by the state Senate and state House late Thursday. It had been resurrected earlier this week in the Missouri House after being rejected a few days earlier, and Senate action had been in doubt -- with one Republican leader earlier predicting its demise.
That didn't happen.
The bill now headed to the governor features a mishmash of assorted projects, including $111 million for a statewide interoperability system for law enforcement, $31.2 million for the Ellis Fischel Cancer Center and $2 million for the state’s public defender system. It also includes money to renovate two buildings at the University of Missouri St. Louis and the Bellefontaine Neighbors complex.
Also added into the bill in the Senate were unfinished projects derived from the partial asset sale of the Missouri Higher Education Loan Authority, as well as $50 million to entice battery companies to locate in the state.
Senate action came Thursday after an understanding was announced during debate, in which sought-after projects not funded in the final version will be heard over the summer in a House-Senate committee examining capital improvement projects. Senate President Pro Tem Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph, said he would recommend a special session to fund any projects pitched by the panel.
Still, the $12 million allotment to Metro turned out to be the most controversial item in the bill.
The money had been inserted into the bill at the behest of Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder and other allies of Metro CEO Bob Baer, a prominent Republican. Metro has had to slash bus routes, Call-A-Ride service and employees because of a $40 million shortfall. Voters in St. Louis County rejected last fall a proposed one-half cent sales tax that would have raised $80 million a year for the transit agency.
Metro has said that the $12 million in aid from the state -- the most that Missouri has ever given Metro -- would help it restore about one-third of the cut services and laid-off workers.
The inclusion of the money upset Kansas City lawmakers who wanted assistance to the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority, which had also seen its share of budget woes. Sen. Yvonne Wilson – a Kansas City Democrat angry about absence of the help for KCATA – briefly brought the Senate debate to a halt by reading a book.
But Wilson – as well as Sen. Jolie Justus, D-Kansas City -- chose to scrap their filibuster after getting an assurance that funding for KCATA would be considered over the summer in the capital improvement committee. The Senate then voted 23-8 to pass the bill. Minutes after the bill was passed, the measure hit the floor of the Missouri House. There, it got flak from Democrats who were upset at the bill’s earlier handling in the House.
But after 15 minutes of debate,the bill overwhelmingly passed, 115-41.
Jason Rosenbaum is a freelance reporter in Jefferson City. Jo Mannies is the Beacon political reporter.