Missouri senators propose to spend $943M from stimulus

Wednesday, April 15, 2009 | 8:26 a.m. CDT; updated 9:45 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, April 15, 2009

JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri senators are proposing to plug $943 million of federal stimulus money into next year's budget for services ranging from schools to sex crime detectives to passenger trains.

The stimulus money comprises just 4 percent of the Senate's proposed $23.2 billion operating budget, but it's expected to spur a considerable amount of debate as senators reconcile their version of a state spending plan with one passed by the House.

Senators on Tuesday began passing the 13 bills that comprise the budget. The next step would be a House-Senate conference committee. Then the two chambers must pass a final version of the budget by May 8.

At issue is a particular category of money from the federal stimulus package known as "budget stabilization" dollars, which are intended to help states shore up their budgets.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Gary Nodler, R-Joplin, said about $2.2 billion of such money could be available to Missouri over the next two years.

The operating budget passed previously by the House would spend about $625 million of that federal money in the 2010 fiscal year, primarily by substituting it for state funds that otherwise would have gone to K-12 public schools and higher education institutions.

The Senate version not only would spend more of the federal money but also would allocate it to more specific programs in the operating budget — often in place of state money but, in some cases, for items that would not have otherwise been funded.

In addition to $500 million in federal money allotted to the basic K-12 school funding formula, the Senate version would use the federal money to pay for school busing and continuing education programs for school staff.

The Senate budget plan includes $37.5 million in federal money to pay production subsidies to ethanol and biodiesel plants that are required under state law. It also would finance the Division of Tourism's nearly $24 million budget with federal money.

Other proposed Senate uses for the federal money include $15 million for job training, nearly $11 million for the Missouri Arts Council and $9 million to cover the state's subsidy for twice-daily Amtrak service between St. Louis and Kansas City.

Among the smaller uses of the federal money, the Senate plan would spend $1.5 million for Internet sex crime detectives; about $1.7 million on anti-tobacco programs; $2.1 million on child care subsidies for lower-income parents; $500,000 to print the state's Official Manual, sometimes referred to as the "blue book"; and $97,000 to market Missouri agriculture products in China.

Nodler compared the Senate's approach to that of one of his friends, who had cancer in a leg and opted to try to treat it before immediately amputating the leg. The state programs that would be supported next year with federal dollars still might have to be cut in the future, if the economy and state revenues do not pick up.

"We're not cutting off the leg now, but we understand that if the medical condition deteriorates, that might become necessary," Nodler said.

Although the House's version of the operating budget includes less of the federal money than the Senate, the House may ultimately endorse a plan spending more of it.

The House Budget Committee on Tuesday considered a capital improvements bill that would spend nearly $200 million in federal money for repairs and improvements at public colleges and universities, the state Capitol, Supreme Court and other state buildings.

Still to come is another separate House bill spending more money from the "budget stabilization" portion of the federal stimulus law. House Budget Committee Chairman Allen Icet, R-Wildwood, has said he hopes to make public that proposal this week.

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