JEFFERSON CITY — Lawmakers envisioned a shiny new state office building potentially constructed on the site of a now-closed Missouri prison. Gov. Jay Nixon called it a "building for bureaucrats that I didn't ask for." The contrasting visions means the office building could join several college construction projects as existing only in a spending plan.
An uptick in Missouri's tax revenues prompted Nixon this month to suggest funding for work at the state mental hospital, Capitol and park system. Lawmakers made adjustments and added $38 million for planning, design, and construction of a state office building, including space for and renovation of the Missouri Department of Transportation Central Office.
Legislative supporters said the new building could house offices for several state agencies, including the Transportation Department. It could be built on the site of the former Missouri State Penitentiary, which closed in 2004 and overlooks the Missouri River about a mile from the state Capitol. A new federal courthouse sits on part of the land, and tours take visitors through some of the remaining buildings at the old prison.
"With the new state office building that could be built, we will move agencies from leased facilities into that building that will save money down the road on leasing costs," said House Budget Committee Chairman Rick Stream, R-Kirkwood.
But Nixon said he speaks with many Missourians and has "yet to have a single person come up to me and say: 'Boy, what we need governor is for the legislature to go above your budget request to build a brand-new building for bureaucrats in Jeff City.'"
Lawmakers wrapped up work this past week on the state budget that takes effect July 1. In addition to a $24.8 billion operating budget, the legislature approved a capital improvements plan covering the next two years that includes the office building; $50 million for stonework, window repair and structural repair to the state Capitol complex; and $13 million for planning and designing a new facility at the Fulton State Hospital.
However, just because funding is included in the budget does not guarantee money goes out the door for the project. That is because governors have the authority to determine what can be spent by state agencies.
Nixon gave no indication he plans to break ground soon on the new office building. But he said that "if the economy gets rolling and we have more money rolling in than we know what to do with, we'll come back, ... and we'll look at what's there."
Missouri has a recent example of the potential gulf between what's budgeted and what's built. In 2007, then-Gov. Matt Blunt signed legislation to use money from the Missouri State Higher Education Loan Authority to pay for dozens of construction projects at public colleges and universities. The loan agency made an initial $230 million payment to the state in September 2007 but delayed subsequent quarterly payments because of financial troubles caused by the credit market crunch and changes in federal student loan laws.
Nixon opposed the college building plan while serving as attorney general because it took money away from the student loan authority. Shortly after taking office as governor in 2009, he suspended funding for some projects. Nixon included a continued freeze for projects after lawmakers in 2011 again included them in a capital improvements measure because they wanted to reaffirm that they still expected the buildings to someday be completed.
Instead of constructing the buildings, the student loan agency helped finance college scholarships. The Missouri Higher Education Loan Authority transferred $30 million in 2010 and an additional $30 million in 2011 to be used for Missouri's main scholarship program.
Now, it appears Nixon will decide what becomes of another construction project he did not develop.
Chris Blank has covered state government and politics for The Associated Press since 2005. Follow him at twitter.com/ChrisBlank2.