Our Opinion: Derailed by the lure of federal dollars

The temptation to chase tax dollars with tax dollars provides a quintessential example of why government is going broke.

A recent manifestation is Gov. Jay Nixon’s desire to commit state money to land $1 billion in federal money for high-speed rail projects.

After the state of Florida passed up $2.4 billion in federal funding for a high-speed rail line, Missouri was among 24 states seduced by the lure of federal largesse.

Our purpose here is not to evaluate the merits of high-speed rail.

Instead, it is to bemoan the spontaneous realignment of government priorities, simply because federal money is dangled before states.

Republican lawmakers in a House committee wisely blocked the tracks Wednesday.

They refused to include spending for the project in the state budget until the nature and magnitude of Missouri’s monetary commitment can be determined. That commitment could include added construction as well as ongoing operation and maintenance.

Rep. Dwight Scharnhorst, R-Manchester, observed: “It’s just irresponsible for us to advocate something like this with no idea of the ultimate price.”

Precisely.

Brian Weiler, the state department of transportation’s director of multimodal operations, pointed out Missouri’s costs could not be determined until initial studies and design are completed. He characterized the state’s obligation, however, as “significant.”

The governor intends to proceed with the application, despite the legislative setback. His rationale is the spending could be added to the budget later if the state’s application is approved.

He and his supporters are guided by the proverb to “strike while the iron is hot.”

But those who strike recklessly also may get burned.

Florida may have backed away from the inferno, but other states seem all too eager to join.

Missouri government must establish spending priorities based on the needs of Missourians, not the sudden availability of federal money.

Committing an unknown, but significant, amount of tax dollars to join a chase for cash is not sound public policy.

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