COLUMBIA – A proposed $800 million bond issue to fund construction and maintenance of state higher education buildings has run into trouble in the House and is likely to be tabled before it reaches the Senate.
House Speaker Ron Richard, R-Joplin, said Thursday he doesn’t plan to assign a committee to consider the measure. Richard said he has concerns about the additional amount of debt the state would take on and how that would affect the state’s AAA bond rating, which the highest possible rating.
The bond issue was proposed by Rep. Chris Kelly, D-Columbia.
Richard was one of the 131 House members that easily passed Kelly’s previous bond proposal in a 131-28 vote last April. That proposal made it to the Senate last year before being tabled because of similar financial concerns by state legislators.
“The question is one for the voters of the state to decide,” Kelly said. “I don’t understand why these people won’t allow for a vote. It is important for the House to let the voters decide what they want to do with their money.”
Kelly said the bond proposal isn’t big enough to hurt the state’s AAA rating, and the concern of the credit rating is being used as a “red herring,” a tactic to distract from the issue at hand.
Senate President Pro Tem Charlie Shields, R-Kansas City, and House Minority Leader Paul LeVota, D-Independence, also supported Richard’s stance.
When speaking of LeVota’s support for tabling of the measure, Kelly said LeVota’s stance doesn’t match the needs of LeVota’s and Shields’ constituents, which includes the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s need for a new medical building.
In a report conducted by the Missouri Department of Higher Education last summer, the department said the medical school on the Hospital Hill Campus stood out as one of the buildings most in need of renovation, repair or replacement at UMKC.
“All of the state’s universities and business community will have to convince the Republican caucus to let the issue be voted on instead of killing it,” Kelly said.
The bond proposal has received support from the state’s higher education community, including the University of Missouri System.
In a statement Thursday night, UM System President Gary Forsee said the UM System continues to advocate and support bonding legislation.
“The state has a high AAA credit rating that we should leverage, and its current 35-year bond issue is about to expire. As the state and national economy improve ever so slightly, there is no better time for the state to move forward with this being part of our important economic recovery agenda.”
With interest rates currently low and the hunger for work displayed by construction workers and Missourians in general, Paul Wagner, deputy commissioner of the state’s higher education department, said this is a good time to invest in higher education.
“The state is never going to have the cash to fund these projects and it is always going to have to borrow to make major capital improvements,” Wagner said.
Wagner said with the stance taken by Richard, capital improvement needs for the state’s colleges and universities will be neglected for another year.
Kelly said he remains hopeful that the bond issue will get through the House.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.