*This story has been updated to include comments made by Rep. Chris Kelly, D-Columbia.
FULTON — Gov. Jay Nixon announced Monday a proposal to issue state bonds to fund a new $211 million psychiatric facility. The project would address poor conditions at Fulton State Hospital, the state's only maximum-security psychiatric hospital.
"Rebuilding these deteriorating facilities will mean better care for patients, more safety for employees and greater opportunities for this region," Nixon said.
The governor also announced that he had released $11 million in state funds already allocated to planning the new facility.
A state Senate committee dedicated to capital improvements listed the Fulton project as its top priority in a report released earlier this month. Senators visited the facility and decided it was “slowly crumbling and in desperate need (of) repair,” according to a Senate news release.
Committee member Sen. Mike Parson, R-Bolivar, said at the announcement that his years in the police force showed him the need for better care for noncriminals with mental illnesses.
The Fulton State Hospital opened in 1851, making it the oldest state psychiatric facility west of the Mississippi River, Nixon said.
The governor said the facility was aging and cramped, leading to injuries to staff and patients. Based on workers' compensation filings, he said it is more dangerous to work at the Fulton State Hospital than at any Department of Corrections facility in Missouri.
“That’s unacceptable, and it is time to fix it," Nixon said.
Nixon said he plans to fund the rebuilding project entirely through appropriations bonds, which are approved by the state legislature but do not go through a public vote. He said it was important to move quickly because interest rates are at historic lows.
Nixon cited several examples of Missouri capital improvement projects that were funded through the same type of bonds without prior voter approval. Those include the Metropolitan St. Louis Psychiatric Hospital, Northwest Missouri Psychiatric Rehabilitation Center and the Truman State Office Building in Jefferson City.
Rep. Chris Kelly, D-Columbia, called the bond proposal unconstitutional.
"The governor is avoiding the vote of the people," Kelly said. "I understand why he's doing it — it's politically difficult — but we need to follow the constitution."
The Missouri Constitution limits the state's power to issue bonds to three situations: to refund outstanding bonds; in case of emergency, with a limit of $1 million; and "if the measure is approved by a majority of the qualified electors of the state voting thereon at the election."
Kelly interprets the last stipulation to mean that bond issues must be put up for a public vote.
He added that a revenue bond must fund a project that generates money, such as a parking garage or a dormitory. The state mental hospital is funded by taxes.
"Let the people decide," Kelly said. "It's their money. Give them the choice. We could do that. We could do that in time to build it this year," he said, suggesting a public vote in April 2014.
Kelly said he also worries that the bond would bind a future legislature into borrowing money it might not be able to pay back.
"He's effectively playing games with our AAA credit rating," he said.
Despite his qualms, Kelly said "there couldn't be a more important project" than the psychiatric facility. He said he had been lobbying for improvements for six years and he was glad the governor had made the construction a priority.
The Fulton State Hospital construction project could create more than 2,500 new jobs in the area, the governor's office estimated.
The bond issuance will be part of the governor's fiscal year 2015 budget proposal to be presented to the General Assembly in January.
"As these walls continue to crumble, our conscience demands that we do better," Nixon said. "And under my proposal, we will."