JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri was the first to start using federal stimulus money for road projects, but transportation officials now contend the work might need to stop because of state lawmakers' efforts to better track where stimulus funds are spent.
Several lawmakers aren't so sure, but the risk of stopping work on transportation projects worth tens of millions of dollars prompted the Senate on Thursday to clear up the confusion in a midyear spending bill.
The issue hinges on how Missouri's more than $4 billion take of the federal economic stimulus package will flow into state coffers.
Lawmakers earlier this session approved legislation that creates two state funds to collect stimulus money and make it easier to keep track of the money. The Missouri Department of Transportation says that effort created the problem because the department doesn't have authority to spend the roughly $637 million for road and bridge projects in those accounts.
Without the special stimulus accounts, the federal transportation money would go to Missouri's road fund, which transportation officials control.
Transportation Director Pete Rahn said Thursday that the hang-up could stop work on every road project that was to be funded through the stimulus package, which could cause the state to miss a federal deadline for spending stimulus money.
"We're not trying to make this into a big deal, I'm not trying to be Chicken Little," Rahn said. "But if we get caught up into the normal battles of the legislature and it takes two months to get an appropriation, then all of our work on stimulus projects will have to cease."
Missouri has gained national attention for its efforts to use the federal stimulus package for road construction projects.
Last month, Missouri became the first state to begin construction — just minutes after President Barack Obama signed the stimulus package — on a Great Depression-era bridge in Tuscumbia about 30 miles southwest of the Capitol. Work crews started on the bridge over the Osage River after Gov. Jay Nixon sounded a horn.
Earlier this month, transportation officials approved 32 road paving projects to be paid for using $38 million from the stimulus package. In all, Missouri has approved almost $91 million in transportation projects.
To avoid potential problems with those projects, senators used a midyear spending bill to give MoDOT authority to spend transportation money in the state stimulus accounts.
But awarding the new spending authority required senators to call a special vote because the Senate approved the spending bill on Wednesday without any of the transportation provisions. After reopening the bill, senators approved it 30-3.
Appropriations Committee Chairman Gary Nodler said he doubted that the move was needed and called MoDOT "a rouge department threatening political terrorism" while blaming transportation officials for creating problems.
"Some might call it a form of political terrorism employed to alarm folks," said Nodler, R-Joplin.
The supplemental spending bill is designed to cover extra state expenses that were not accounted for when lawmakers passed the state budget last May. It now goes back to the House where lawmakers can either accept the Senate's changes or ask for a negotiating session to work out the differences.
Lawmakers are scheduled to start their annual mid-session break next week, and House leaders said they planned to take up the midyear spending bill when they return on March 23.