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GUEST COMMENTARY: Let voters decide on bond issue for higher education

Monday, February 22, 2010 | 1:45 p.m. CST; updated 10:48 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Last week several Missouri legislative leaders spoke out against House Joint Resolution 77. This is a bill that would allow Missouri voters to decide whether Missourians should dedicate some of the taxes they are already paying to the construction of new major medical and scientific facilities at our public colleges and universities, as well as to make long overdue repairs to crumbling state infrastructure.

House Minority Leader Paul LeVota, D-Independence, said, “There’s not an appetite for it.” Senate President Pro Tem Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph, added that the issue would be a “pretty tough sell” and that “the ability to incur more debt is just not there.” House Speaker Ron Richard, R-Joplin, said he was concerned about the state’s AAA bond rating and that he planned to keep the bill “in his drawer,” thereby preventing both the legislature and the people from voting on it.

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Given that it is Lent, I am going to resist the temptation to say bad things about these three colleagues, a sacrifice so great that it will certainly result in cutting years off my much deserved time in purgatory. I am, however, going to be frank.

HJR 77 is the measure sponsored by Steven Tilley, R-Perryville, 50 other House members of both parties and myself. It would allow the state to sell general obligation bonds to raise $800 million. The money would be used to build a new nursing school at University of Missouri-St. Louis, new chemistry labs at Southeast Missouri State, a new medical building at University of Missouri-Kansas City, a new science building at Missouri State University, a new cancer research and treatment hospital and a new College of Engineering at MU and a series of new high-tech training facilities at community colleges. It would include the top construction priority of every public college and university in the state. It could also include money for other serious state infrastructure needs, like repairs to Fulton State Hospital, the sewer systems at our larger state parks, and improvements to our long-neglected state river port system.  

In 1982, Gov. Kit Bond and legislative leaders asked the people to approve the Third State Building Fund, a similar $600 million capital improvements program.  The projects from that fund put thousands of people to work in the private sector and constructed a legacy that has served the state for 30 years. We need to do it again, and now is the time. Missourians need the work. The project bids will be low and the interest rates are excellent (last week, 3.46%). If we ever hope to compete in the global market, we must train chemists, engineers and medical researchers. We must also meet the immediate technical education needs of our private sector, a role that our community colleges are uniquely qualified to address.

Insofar as the government should act to mitigate difficult economic times, there is no better way than through the construction of infrastructure. The jobs that would be created are all in the private sector, all the work is immediate and the benefit to the economy is long lasting.

As to the concerns raised above by my three friends, I make these responses. Yes, this is debt. It is not, however, operating debt; it is capital improvement debt. Just as we incur debt as homeowners and the private sector incurs debt for its capital plant, so too will the state always use debt to build large new facilities. It is also far less debt than the state has incurred for similar purposes in the past. Gov. Bond’s Third State Building Fund amounted to about 24% of the 1982 general revenue budget of $2.3 billion; our Fifth State Building Fund of $800 million is about 10.25% of our current $7.8 billion general revenue budget. These numbers also put to rest any rational concern about our AAA credit rating. I have spoken to bond experts at two major Missouri banks and to the state’s own bond managers. All agree that we would have to issue well over $2 billion in bonds before there would be the slightest risk to our credit rating. I beg all those in this discussion not to misuse our credit rating as a political tool. If they are going to assert that the credit rating is at risk, then they should submit some evidence.

Rep. LeVota said there is “no appetite for the bonds.” I would encourage him to tour UMKC Medical School in his own community and speak with the chancellor and the doctors. He might also wish to consider whether there is “appetite” at the campuses of Metropolitan Community College and at the industries they serve. I hope he will also ask the Kansas City Chamber of Commerce and the unemployed construction workers in his district whether there is “appetite.” I understand that there is little hunger among politicians for hard decisions, but undoubtedly there is an appetite among those who need jobs, those who need trained workers, and those who know we need to teach and do research in a competitive world.

Most troubling are the comments of Speaker Richard, who supported the bond issue last year and who this year is exercising his singular power to kill the project. If he does not reconsider, neither the legislature nor the people of Missouri will have the chance to decide how to use their own tax dollars. The Speaker’s decision is driven by political concern. Republicans have polled the issue of “debt” and decided (correctly) that debt is an effective issue to use against the president and national Democrats. They are unwilling to muddy the issue by supporting state general obligation debt. They forget that people are smart enough to distinguish between an escalating federal debt for the operating budget and fiscally prudent state capital improvement debt that is approved by the voters and used only for infrastructure needs. What is the harm in letting voters decide this issue?

The bond issue does not have to be a partisan issue. I am grateful for the support of many Republican allies, notably Majority Leader Tilley and my colleague Senator Kurt Schaefer, R-Boone. However, to be successful, rational Republican business people need to speak up, and they must do it now. They must let the Republican legislative leadership know that Missouri needs to build for the future. Missouri needs the jobs. We need the trained work force. We need the facilities. And we need state legislators to put the needs of Missourians before politics.

I ask the state’s business community to speak up for Missouri.

Rep. Chris Kelly can be contacted at chris@chriskelly24.com


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