UPDATE: Kansas, Missouri governors plan for stimulus money

Tuesday, February 10, 2009 | 9:34 p.m. CST

KANSAS CITY — With the prospect of millions of dollars in federal economic stimulus flowing down to the state level soon, the governors of Missouri and Kansas are getting a lot of ideas about where that money should go.

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon and Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius attended the annual governors' summit sponsored by Kansas City business leaders on Tuesday. Discussion centered on ways the two states could use President Barack Obama's proposed stimulus plan to create jobs and rethink the region's financial future.

Education advocates said more funds were needed, or at least shouldn't be reduced, to build the well-trained work forces demanded by industries. Utility officials said they needed greater leeway to recoup the cost of helping their customers become more energy-efficient, complaining that most of the focus for tax breaks and other assistance is for renewable energy.

And engineers said local communities need subsidies to deal with the huge price tag of upgrading long-neglected water and sewer systems.

"We could create jobs this year," said Greg Graves, whose firm, Burns & McDonnell, is working with Kansas City on a $2.4 billion sewer upgrade. "Investing in neighborhoods is the most fundamental investment we could make."

The House and Senate have passed separate $800 billion-plus versions of the stimulus bill, proposing differing mixes of tax cuts and increased government spending. The two sides are expected to soon work out a compromise for the president to sign.

The deteriorating economy has forced both Kansas and Missouri to wrestle with significant budget deficits and face steep cuts in jobs and services to make up the difference.

Sebelius and Nixon said they didn't expect to receive any stimulus money in time to help out this year's budgets. As for their 2010 spending plans, Sebelius said she didn't include any stimulus money when she drafted her proposal in November, while Nixon said his budget included $809 million.

But the two governors agreed with summit speakers who said the massive effort to jump-start the economy was a good opportunity to rethink the region's financial future, one that could become far more invested in biotechnology, alternative energy and medical research.

"The worst of all worlds is to come out of this economy and be in the exact same place as we were when the downturn started and not use this as a way to make some major shifts," Sebelius said.

Nixon said he thinks education must be a big beneficiary of the economic stimulus plan, saying he would favor ways to make it cheaper for people to go to college. He pointed to his own agreement with Missouri universities to preserve their funding if they didn't raise tuition and fees.

"If people are not incented to live up to their potential through our educational system because it's too expensive, we're all in a world of hurt," he said.

It was the first summit for Nixon, who was elected last year. It was the fourth for Sebelius, and it could be her last.

She is reportedly a top pick to become the secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services but declined to speculate about the rumors Tuesday.

"I'm totally focused on our budget and getting a stimulus passed," she said. "I've had no discussions with the president. I don't speculate on what's going to come to my desk."

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