Missouri House defeats federal stimulus spending plan

Thursday, April 30, 2009 | 1:54 p.m. CDT; updated 5:08 p.m. CDT, Thursday, April 30, 2009

JEFFERSON CITY — House members have defeated a plan to spend $336 million of federal stimulus money on various projects across Missouri.

The 82-68 vote Thursday came after several members described the bill as pork and suggested the federal money should be saved for next year.

The defeat came as somewhat of a surprise to House Republican leaders, who had retooled their stimulus spending proposal several times to try to win support.

The bill had received initial approval Wednesday. But on Thursday, 32 Republicans joined 50 Democrats in voting against the bill. Voting for the bill were 54 Republicans and 14 Democrats.

House Majority Leader Steven Tilley, of Perryville, said Republican leaders did not try to twist arms to get members to support the spending package. Tilley said he was not inclined to try to reconsider the bill.

Although the Senate could try to revive some of the projects, the House vote puts them in jeopardy with barely a week remaining before the Legislature's constitutional deadline to pass a state budget by May 8.

The bill's biggest ticket item was nearly $112 million for a new Highway Patrol radio system that also could improve communication among local emergency responders.

More than $31 million would have gone to build a new cancer hospital at the University of Missouri-Columbia, which has tried for several years to get the project funded through various sources.

The bill would have given $12 million to help the financially strapped Metro public transit system in St. Louis, which has cut its bus routes and light-rail schedules and laid off workers.

The legislation also included federal money for maintenance and repairs at public colleges, subsidies for ethanol producers and a new highway interchange in Jefferson City that would have funneled traffic to a redevelopment on the site of the former Missouri State Penitentiary, just east of the Capitol.

The plan already had been scaled back once because of concern from majority-party Republicans that they were proposing to spend too much money. On Thursday, some Democrats also denounced the bill for spending money on special interest projects.

"We have all of these pork projects going to different districts when we need to be saving this money for the services we provide," said Rep. Jason Holsman, D-Kansas City.

Some Democrats also opposed the bill because Republicans bypassed the typical process by initiating the bill in the House Rules Committee instead of the House Budget Committee. They did so to try to move the bill along more quickly.

House Budget Committee Chairman Allen Icet denied the bill was packed with pork and asserted that opponents never publicly identified a single project they considered wasteful.

"All of these benefit the citizens of Missouri," Icet, R-Wildwood, told colleagues shortly before they defeated his legislation.

A frustrated Icet later told reporters: "Most of the members who voted against this never bothered to pick up the bill and read it."

One of those who had read it and broke ranks with other Republican leaders was House Speaker Pro Tem Bryan Pratt. He suggested the money to bail out the St. Louis public transit system "may have killed the bill on its own."

"We should spend the stimulus money in two ways: saving for a bad budget year and sending the taxpayers their money back," said Pratt, R-Blue Springs. "There was a significant amount of frustration from folks on both sides of the aisle ... that felt this become a little pork barrel spending project."

Among the smaller projects in the bill were $4.2 million to Kirksville for DNA analysis in criminal cases; $2.5 million for a plant science research center in Mexico, Mo.; $1.6 million for a new Hannibal campus of Moberly Area Community College; and $500,000 for renovations at the Jackson County Courthouse in Independence.

At issue is how to use Missouri's roughly $2 billion share of "budget stabilization" money from the federal stimulus package. Unlike some stimulus funds that are earmarked for specific purposes by the federal government, the stabilization money is intended to provide states flexibility in plugging budget gaps.

Some House Republicans want to use nearly $1 billion of the money to provide a tax break to Missourians.

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