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MoDOT clashes with Senate appropriations on questionable expenditures

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – The Missouri Department of Transportation offered testimony to the Senate Appropriations committee Thursday morning that featured tense scrutiny into the spending habits of the steward of state’s roads and bridges.

The hearing proceeded smoothly for MoDOT to start. Director Patrick McKenna reported that the funding crisis that had gripped the department had gone from a rolling boil to a light simmer due to some money-saving measures instituted by the department. In the past, MoDOT had raised concerns that the they would not have enough funding to earn a federal match. McKenna says they should be solvent in that regard for at least the next five years thanks to the fact that they have experienced a slight uptick in revenue due to lower gas prices, have spent less money, and earned more federal money by “federalizing” certain products.

Patrick McKenna provides informational testimony which supports Libla's bill. (Travis Zimpfer/The Missouri Times)
Patrick McKenna provides informational testimony supporting a bill by Sen. Doug Libla Jan. 13, 2016 (Travis Zimpfer/The Missouri Times)

However, McKenna said the primary reason they would achieve that federal match was Congress’ passage of the FAST Act, which increased funding for existing state-federal transportation match programs.

McKenna then noted that did not solve the department’s highly politicized fiscal woes. Those match dollars, he stressed, ought to go towards new projects and expansion, while the money appropriated by the state should be spent on maintenance.

“It’s not an ideal circumstance,” he said. “You want that kind of operating cost covered by your operating budget.”

However, Sen. David Pearce, R-Warrensburg, said the Senate was “putting our credibility on the line” when they have to talk about bringing in new revenue to their constituents, and other senators were quick to point out what they saw as unnecessary and frivolous expenditures. 

After McKenna noted that the department had reduced its workforce by 20 percent in the last 18 months, Sen. Mike Parson, R-Bolivar, asked why many of the released employees had been paid for two months without work just before they were fired. Parson was also skeptical as to why MoDOT needed $259,000 to fly commissioners around the state in the last year.

“I guess I just want you to know my frustration when I see something like this,” Parson said. “You can’t keep doing stuff like this.”

Another activity of the department came under scrutiny from Budget Chair Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, when he questioned the existence of a diversity training program titled “Islam 101,” which involved bringing in volunteer Muslim speakers to inform MoDOT employees of the Islamic faith. Schaefer had a significant problem with a state agency using state time for state employees to listen to what could be construed as an endorsement of a religious institution.

“Do you understand the legal issues putting on a workshop promoting a specific religion?” he said, adding that in his time as an attorney and politicians it was one of the “most blatantly unconstitutional things” he had ever seen. “The legal liability… would have been tremendous.”

McKenna noted the training had been cancelled after some state representatives contacted the department and implied that it would not happen again.

The hearing comes at an impactful time for MoDOT as two competing funding proposals for the department have emerged in the Senate. Sen. Doug Libla, R-Poplar Bluff, introduced a bill in January that would raise the state’s nation-low gas tax 1.5 cents per gallon.

Schaefer, however, has put forth a proposal of his own that would use money from general revenue to pay for increased funding for the transportation.

“Through the budget process this session, we will restore, expand and rename MoDOT’s $50 million matching program,” Schaefer said in a statement. “The new Missouri Moves Fund will allow local communities to leverage matching funds to meet critical needs as well as regional priorities.”

This move could put other monies that go towards programs like education and welfare programs in danger.