Since last December, I have been nagging anyone who would listen — and some who would not — to consider a Fifth State Building Bond. I believe we should allow the voters to decide if Missouri should dedicate some of the tax revenue that taxpayers are already paying to a large-scale capital program. We could construct needed buildings at every university and community college in the state. We could also replace some of our mental health and other facilities that are literally falling down around our ears. We could undertake these projects at record low costs because every contractor in the state is hungry and, if we act quickly, we could borrow the money at record low interest rates. At the same time, we could create jobs to help alleviate an unemployment rate approaching 10 percent.
I now see that several key legislative Republicans have recently reversed their positions on the issuance of State General Obligation Bonds — the bonds that would be used to construct important state and higher education buildings and to put thousands of our fellow citizens to work at high-paying construction jobs. Their reversal comes directly on the heels of a change in the position of our Democratic Governor who now has decided to support the sale of the bonds.
It looks awfully like my Republican colleagues thought the bonds were a good idea when Jay did not support them. Now that Jay supports the bonds, they are, all of a sudden, a bad idea. These Republicans say the governor ought to use federal stimulus money to complete the building work. However, these same legislators voted to use much of the stimulus money to operate the government’s day-to-day operations. Further, the immutable fact is that we finished FY 2009 with revenue about 6.9 percent less than the previous year. That is a lot of money. Everyone in this discussion knows that if we don’t protect some of the stimulus money for FY 2011 and 2012, we will be in much worse shape in those years than we are today.
Bipartisanship is our best policy
I was encouraged during the 2009 legislative session that we had a good chance to be successful with the bond issue. Many thoughtful Republicans looked at the idea — including my co-sponsor Rep. Steve Tilley, R-Perryville — decided that it had merit, that it was good for Missouri, and got on board regardless of party labels. A bipartisan group of hardworking legislators came within a whisker of sending the bond issue to the voters. As the session wore on, we were joined by university and community college advocates and by business and labor groups around the state. More and more people considered the actual merits of the proposal and decided — without any political gamesmanship — that the bonds were a good idea. I was particularly grateful to my supportive GOP colleagues because they had no political reason to help me. They simply made a decision in the best interests of Missouri, even if it meant working across the aisle.
Gov. Nixon has now voiced support for the program. He is considering calling a special session so that the legislature might pass a bond issue, send it to the voters, and get Missouri back to work. I hope that my Republican colleagues, many of whom I have come to like and respect, will not bail on the idea simply because the Governor now supports it. It is time for all of us to put our party labels aside and do what is best for Missouri.
In 1982, then-Gov. Kit Bond and some smart, perceptive Democrats worked across the aisle to adopt and send to the voters the Third State Building Fund. Missourians supported it in a statewide vote. Lots of sensible state construction was completed that has served us ever since. Lots of people went to work and there was no tax increase. In fact, there has never been a tax increase as a result of any of our previous four State Building Bond issues.
The debt service on the Third State Building Fund will expire in two years. This same revenue stream will pay for most of the Fifth State Building Fund with only very minor additional pressure on the budget. We can do in 2009 what Gov. Bond led us to do in 1982 and what Missourians have done four previous times. We can sell General Obligation Bonds. We can complete vitally needed state projects, put thousands of people to work and we can do so at a record low cost.
The argument for
There are four positive reasons for the legislature to send a bond proposal to the voters:
1. The buildings to be constructed are vital and long overdue;
2. The Building Fund will put thousands of Missourians to work in the very near future;
3. The State will complete the work at very low cost, both in terms of the cost of construction and the cost of borrowing the money; and
4. The money belongs to the taxpayers and the General Assembly should allow them to make the decision.
The argument against
Only one argument is ever voiced against a bond issue: That we ought not incur debt. The argument fails because the state will always complete large capital improvements with debt of one kind or another. It is simply a matter of when and how. General Obligation debt is the most conservative and proven method. It is also the least expensive. This is not some credit card spending spree. It is the construction of educational and medical facilities that will serve our state for fifty years.
Most of all, the debt argument fails because, in the last analysis, the state’s revenue belongs to the people. It is their money. Missouri voters ought to be permitted to decide if they are willing to dedicate some of their own tax dollars to needed capital construction and to job creation. I am sometimes amazed to hear the same people who oppose a bond issue argue that they represent the interests of the taxpayers. Please don’t help so much. Just get out of the taxpayers’ way and let them choose how they want to use their state revenue. Let them vote.
I am particularly puzzled by the comments of my old friend Lt. Gov. Pete Kinder who was for the bonds before he was against them. Lt. Gov. Kinder now says, “This bonding initiative is merely a debt plan that will fail to put any Missourians back to work in the near future.” He knows that it is impossible to do hundreds of millions of dollars of new construction and not put many thousands of people to work at good jobs. Further, the projects will have a long-term positive effect by employing thousands of Missourians at the new facilities.
Let’s build for our future
Finally, I implore my colleagues in the legislature: Please don’t turn what has been a sensible, issue-oriented discussion into a political weapon. The bond issue ought to be judged on what it can do for Missouri.
I hope every thinking Missourian will consider whether our state ought to engage in a large-scale capital improvement and job-creation program. Please take the time to contact your senator and representative and make your position clear. I hope that we will not miss this opportunity because we would rather play politics than build our state.
Rep. Chris Kelly can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org