ANALYSIS: Missouri lawmakers criticize transportation director

Monday, June 1, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 8:22 p.m. CDT, Thursday, July 23, 2009

JEFFERSON CITY — Lawmakers lately have been lambasting Missouri's transportation director for veering into their policy lanes by publicly lobbying on legislation relating to seat belts and motorcycle helmets.

But lawmakers are on a two-way street.

While criticizing the transportation director for mingling in their affairs, lawmakers have entered into what traditionally is the realm of the Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission by directing it to spend money on a particular road project.

Some legislators defend the philosophical inconsistency by noting that their venture into highway spending is legally allowed. Meanwhile, the transportation director says his advocacy for highway safety issues is part of the department's official responsibilities.

At issue are three bills considered during the 2009 legislative session:

  • House Bill 665, which would have allowed police to pull over motorists for not wearing seat belts. Under Missouri's current law, seat belt tickets can be issued only after motorists are pulled over for some other offense.
  • Senate Bill 202, which would partially repeal Missouri's mandate that motorcyclists wear helmets. The bill would let riders age 21 and older go helmet-free on any roads except interstate highways.
  • House Bill 22, which authorizes the expenditure of money from the federal stimulus package for various projects. Included in the bill is $10 million to improve highway access to the site of the former Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City, which is viewed as a prime Missouri Riverfront property.

Missouri Department of Transportation Director Pete Rahn lobbied lawmakers unsuccessfully to pass the tougher seat belt law. Now he's urging Gov. Jay Nixon to veto the helmet legislation.

Some lawmakers initially took offense when 17 employees from MoDOT's Highway Safety Division participated in a Capitol rally in March urging passage of the seat belt legislation. Lawmakers complained it wasn't appropriate for state employees to be lobbying state officials on state time.

That criticism was repeated and amplified in May when Rahn held a news conference in front of a hospital emergency room announcing the results of a MoDOT-commissioned poll showing the public in support of motorcycle helmets. The transportation department spent about $33,000 of federal highway safety funds on the poll.

Senate Majority Leader Charlie Shields was quick to criticize Rahn for "overstepping his bounds as an unelected bureaucrat" by using taxpayer dollars to try to influence state policy. Nixon and other lawmakers have joined in the rebuke.

"I believe strongly that public policy is made in the legislative halls and executed with agreement by the governor," said Shields, R-St. Joseph. "Pete Rahn's job is to be the director of the Department of Transportation and oversee the highways; it's not to try to influence legislators to do something."

Added Nixon: "I think the taxpayers are darn sick and tired of people spending public money to lobby public officials like that."

But Rahn makes no apologies. The department regularly spends federal safety money on polling, he said. And highway safety issues — such as motorcycle helmets — are as much a part of the department's mission as building roads, Rahn added.

"When an issue comes up that could increase fatalities by an estimated 42 more deaths a year on our highways, I think we have an obligation to speak up and say this is not a good idea," Rahn said.

Among those critical of Rahn's poll-based lobbying is Rep. Mark Bruns, R-Jefferson City. A supporter of repealing the helmet law, Bruns also is the lead advocate for the legislation directing $10 million to MoDOT for a new U.S. 50 interchange leading to the old prison site.

The federal stimulus money would supplement about $1 million earmarked directly by the federal government and $2 million each from Jefferson City and Cole County.

The Missouri Constitution gives the transportation commission — not the General Assembly — power to decide how to spend state road funds derived from motor fuel taxes, vehicle sales taxes and license fees.

There is no constitutional prohibition on lawmakers using money from other sources for particular highway projects, though that is not typically done.

Bruns explained during the legislative session that using stimulus money for a road project was no different than lawmakers earmarking it for a plant sciences center in Mexico, Mo. — another project included in House Bill 22.

But the fact remains that the transportation department did not include the Jefferson City interchange in its own list of 140 road and bridge projects to be funded with $577 million in stimulus money.

Roger Schwartze, MoDOT's central Missouri district engineer, said Friday that the project originally was excluded because it wasn't ready to go as quickly as required by the federal government for highway-specific stimulus dollars.

Since lawmakers are tapping a portion of the stimulus money available for general purposes, the time constraints on construction would not apply, Schwartze said.

Bruns, Shields and other lawmakers defend the right to direct stimulus money for particular road projects.

But the move still made House Budget Committee Chairman Allen Icet a little squeamish.

"This really should fall into MoDOT's bailiwick, in my opinion," said Icet, R-Wildwood.

Just as other lawmakers are criticizing MoDOT, Icet said "you could make the argument the legislature is overstepping their bounds."


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