Missouri governor defends use of bonds to build new state hospital

Thursday, January 23, 2014 | 5:57 p.m. CST; updated 10:14 p.m. CST, Thursday, January 23, 2014
Warning notices are posted on a broken door at Fulton State Hospital, the oldest public mental health facility west of the Mississippi River. Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon said updating the antiquated mental hospital is urgent.

FULTON — After Tuesday’s State of the State address, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle questioned the constitutionality of a proposal to use $198 million in bonds to rebuild Fulton State Hospital.

But from Fulton City Hall on Thursday, Gov. Jay Nixon answered those questions of legality and emphasized the importance of fast-tracking construction of a new facility.

The crumbling Fulton State Hospital, which opened in 1851, is Missouri’s only maximum-security mental hospital.

“Quite frankly, as I said Tuesday night ... it is time to go,” Nixon said. “We cannot allow this critical priority to be kicked down the road any further.”

The governor has set aside $14 million in this year’s supplemental budget for the project, matching that amount in his 2015 proposal. These funds will go toward advance payments on the appropriation-backed bonds needed to finance the estimated $221 million project.

Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, and Rep. Chris Kelly, D-Columbia, were among the lawmakers suggesting that not taking the bond to a vote of the people was unconstitutional.

On Thursday, Nixon came armed with examples, emphasizing that these measures have been taken by both parties to fuel construction of critical-need projects like the Eastern Reception Diagnostic and Correctional Center in Bonne Terre, the Northwest Missouri Psychiatric Rehabilitation Center, the Metropolitan St. Louis Psychiatric Center and the Harry S Truman State Office Building in Jefferson City.

“The argument on the legality of it is wrong, proven not only by what the law says, but also by the concrete examples here in our state. I think that is more of a tactical objection,” Nixon said.

By using appropriation-backed bonds and avoiding a vote of the people, the governor said, he will be able to break ground on the new Fulton State Hospital sooner. With Missouri’s healthy bounce-back from recession economy and a solid AAA credit score, Nixon repeatedly expressed that the “time is now” to move forward with construction.

“We need to move forward now. We don’t need to make excuses or up the political rhetoric. That’s not going to solve any problems,” he said.

Rep. Ed Schieffer, D-Troy, who was at the Fulton announcement, echoed the governor’s statement.

“It would be foolish not to take the best possibility we can receive for the lowest rate. That is why this is the time,” Schieffer said. “I’m with the governor that this needs to be a separate bonding so we can move forward on it as quickly as possible.”

Schieffer, who has a sister with bipolar disorder and whose great-aunt spent 30 years in Fulton State Hospital, stressed the importance of caring for Missouri families.

“It happens across all socioeconomic strata, across all religious and ethnic backgrounds," he said. "Mental illness doesn’t care who you are or what your family is. If it strikes, it strikes.”

Fulton State Hospital has fallen in such disrepair that, based on workers' compensation claims, it has the most dangerous working conditions in the state. The Department of Mental Health reported that last year, the hospital saw $4 million in workers' compensation claims. Only two-thirds of the nursing staff positions are filled. Because of understaffing, the hospital racked up more than $3.5 million in overtime payout.

Rep. Jeanie Riddle, R-Mokane, acknowledged the dire situation at the state hospital.

“It is a human rights issue," Riddle said at the Fulton City Hall event. "If this was a business with chemicals and machinery, this would never be allowed to happen. I think it is an atrocity to the state."

Although Riddle initially voiced concern about the governor’s proposal, she said that rebuilding Fulton State Hospital would receive bipartisan support.

“The General Assembly is on board. Both the House and the Senate understand the need. I couldn’t be more thrilled that all the entities understand the desperate need to do this now,” she said. “I know it is the right thing to build the facility ASAP, but I just want to make sure the way we choose to do it is the proper way and the prudent way.”

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