JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — In the final days of the legislative session, a House Joint Resolution that would have created a nearly $1 billion bond issuance for capital improvements across the state stalled in the Senate.
The biggest supporters of the bonding issue, House Speaker Tim Jones, R-Eureka, and Rep. Chris Kelly, D-Columbia, already are looking to make the issue a priority for the 2014 session.
“Not only is the need for these kind of improvements very clear, but right now, money is cheap,” Jones told The Missouri Times. “Interest rates are at their lowest since about 1800, and the smart business move is to borrow money when rates are that low.”
Jones, citing what he called “dire” needs for Missouri’s college campuses as well as state-owned properties, said the state has always handled bonding issues in a financially responsible way and that the measure should have the support of the people. Law requires that Missouri voters approve the measure, HJR14, by popular vote before the state incur the debt.
“The people of this state generally reject tax increases,” Jones said. “But they are generally open to bonding measures because we strive to do them in the most responsible way possible.”
Detractors have argued that the state will be saddled with more debt unnecessarily, and that the improvements Jones and Kelly support should be made incrementally with state money.
Rep. Kurt Bahr, R-St. Charles, was one of 23 members of the House to vote against the resolution on its third reading. Bahr said it wasn’t prudent for a Republican first-ever supermajority to “raise the debt ceiling,” saying his constituents elected him to “do just the opposite of that.”
“We are realizing savings right now on our third building fund because of low interest rates,” Bahr said. “My position is that we should prioritize what improvements we want and pay for them incrementally as we realize those savings. We should pay as we can afford these things, rather than accruing debt.”
Kelly, however, argues that the move toward bonding is most fiscally prudent right now, rather than in the future. Kelly has been publicly supportive of the bonding measure since 2008.
“Republicans are often saying that government should be more like a business,” Kelly told The Missouri Times. “Well, there is no business in the universe, given these rates, that wouldn’t go into the market to get this money. It would be considered a loss.”
Kelly said the bonding measure had the potential to create thousands of jobs, not just for construction workers and engineers tasked with the improvements, but for long-term expansions in healthcare and scientific research.
“The nursing programs across the state are full,” Kelly said. “Most public schools have waiting lists for their nursing programs, some as much as two or three years because we don’t have the space or the resources to train all the demand we have. Let’s train Missourians here in this state, and we can do that if we build some of these facilities and create growth in those fields, because there’s already a demand, we just aren’t meeting it.”
Jones has repeatedly cited improvements to state parks, which he says can boost tourism for out-of-state revenue, as well as “serious” needs in mental health as primary concerns of his. Fulton Mental Health Hospital, he says, is “atrocious” and “completely decrepit.”
“It’s simply wrong that we’ve allowed [the hospital] to fall to this kind of condition,” Jones said. “I take mental healthcare very seriously, and we need to make the investments and improvements in that area that we all know will benefit the state.”
Sen. Brad Lager, R-Savannah, has spoken against the bonding measure in the past, but says there is room for negotiation and compromise. Lager said he’d be very interested in the specifics of any bond measure to prevent “spending on things that don’t create the growth” the state needs.
“If the state of Missouri is looking at debt financing, it has to be done in a magnitude that is in line with the core goal of state government, and that’s to facilitate new growth,” Lager said. “Simply building new office buildings or new buildings for a college won’t automatically do that. I believe passionately that we are going to indebt the tax payers of the state it has to be, one, fiscally responsible, and two, it has to really be building a foundation for future growth, and I didn’t see that in this year’s proposal.”
Lager said he would “reserve judgment” for any bonding proposal in 2014, and said a measure that was fiscally responsible and “foundational in its approach,” would be able to earn his support in the Senate.