Three decades ago, at the urging of Gov. Christopher “Kit” Bond, Missouri invested in its future.
Voters in 1982 narrowly approved a constitutional amendment put before them by the legislature and endorsed by the Republican governor that called for spending $600 million to build roads, parks and public buildings.
The money, invested in several chunks over years, is seen today in buildings on university campuses, on highways and at state parks and mental health facilities.
Here’s what Mr. Bond told lawmakers in his state of the state address in January 1983, not long after voters agreed to the bond issue:
“The recession, which has plagued us since the outset of this term, has continued and deepened. For the third straight year, state government faces budget shortages so severe that saying ‘no’ to worthwhile requests will sorely test even the most courageous of us. And, sadly, your terms begin when thousands of our fellow Missourians are only now beginning to dig out from under the ravages of recent flooding.”
Missouri voters and elected officials agreed that one way to dig out of the two-fisted blizzard of financial and natural calamity was to invest in the state, spurring economic growth with public construction projects.
It’s time to repeat history.
About a month ago, the state made its last payment on that 1982 bond issue, known as the Third State Building Bonds. With interest rates at an all-time low, construction companies chomping at the bit to get back to work and the state’s major public infrastructure showing signs of disrepair, the Missouri legislature should once again ask voters to invest in the state’s future.
In today’s dollars, the $600 million approved by voters in 1982 would amount to about $1.4 billion. That’s a good place to start as lawmakers consider what will ultimately be called the Fifth State Building Bonds. (The Fourth State Building Bonds, passed in 1994, were mostly for prison expansion).
Since 2009, state Rep. Chris Kelly, D-Columbia, has been proposing such a bond issue. He got the proposal through the House that first year, but it died in the Senate. The next year, Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, signed on to the proposal. Mr. Schaefer is now the budget chairman and is in position to help get this smart proposal across the finish line.
Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat who just won his second term, should channel Mr. Bond and start pushing for what would be the best, most realistic jobs plan available. Mr. Bond used his bully pulpit and traveled the state pushing the bond issue. He steered it through a Democratic-controlled legislature and secured its victory at the polls. Mr. Nixon, on the other hand, has been lukewarm on Mr. Kelly’s proposal over the last couple of years.
The state needs its leaders to rally behind this smart investment.
The timing just improved with the federal government’s decision last week to pass over Missouri as it awarded a federal grant to encourage a new investment in small nuclear reactors. Lawmakers, and Mr. Nixon, were counting on that grant to spur new manufacturing jobs. From where we sit, the proposal was always a long shot; any real jobs would have been years down the road.
That’s not the case with a public works program, and elected officials who just spent a year talking hypothetically about jobs and economic development should start cashing the checks their mouths have been writing.
Missouri’s AAA credit rating, long the twinkle in lawmakers’ eyes, is worthless if it is never put to use. In the current fiscal year, Missouri’s debt service on its outstanding general obligation bonds amounts to about $77 million, and that number will drop to $12 million by 2023. Moody’s Investors Service ranks Missouri’s per-capita debt load among the lowest in the nation, far below the national average.
Mr. Kelly believes lawmakers in the GOP-controlled legislature are open to the bond issue proposal in the upcoming session. They should be. In 1982 the “low” interest rates sought by lawmakers were between 8 percent and 9 percent. Now they are a third of that.
Money is cheap. Jobs are needed. Time is wasting.
It’s time to invest in Missouri, and, as we did 30 years ago, spur our own economic revival.
Copyright St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Reprinted with permission.