Mo. Senate backs $15M of aid after Joplin tornado

Missouri senators backed a plan Wednesday that could provide $15 million to Joplin to rebuild street curbs and gutters damaged as a result of a deadly 2011 tornado.

The legislation given initial approval would create a disaster recovery fund for damaged infrastructure by diverting money from other governmental entities, including the state insurance department and an agency that finances health and education facilities.

Although other natural disaster areas could tap into the money, the amount allotted to the fund is intended to match the cost of repairing about 750,000 feet of Joplin curbs and gutters damaged by the tornado and the heavy equipment used to clean up and haul off debris.

“When trucks were trying to get in to do search and rescue, to remove debris ... we were crushing sewers and crushing curbs,” said Senate Majority Leader Ron Richard, R-Joplin. He added: “People in my community —as in your community — want to help themselves, but we need a little bit of help.”

The May 22, 2011, tornado killed 161 people, injured scores more and damaged or destroyed thousands of homes and businesses, including a hospital and several schools. Federal agencies already have provided hundreds of millions of dollars in aid, including $113 million announced last month by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

But supporters of the Missouri legislation said the recovery still has funding gaps.

“Joplin is hurting. If the state can direct monies to Joplin, I’m all for that,” said Sen. John Lamping, R-St. Louis County, who sponsored the bill.

The legislation would create the Rebuild Damaged Infrastructure Fund that could be used to repair streets, sewers, water mains, electric and telephone systems and public schools in areas where there was a presidential disaster declaration. It was amended during Senate debate Wednesday to be applied statewide, instead of only to Joplin.

The bill would take $10 million from the state insurance department and $4 million from the Missouri Health and Educational Facilities Authority, which provides financing to medical centers and schools. It would sweep all the money remaining from a dormant fund to finance college construction projects, estimated at $879,000. The bill also would take $200,000 from a Department of Revenue fund for the disaster recovery efforts, and $2.8 million from the Revenue Department to be placed in general state revenues.

Sen. Brad Lager, R-Savannah, objected to taking money from the insurance department because it had been paid through licensing fees charged to insurance agents and other industry assessments on the understanding that the money would help fund the agency, which regulates the insurance industry. But Lager’s effort to strip the money transfers from the legislation was defeated 22-11.

Insurance department spokesman Chris Cline said the department fund currently has a balance of $14.5 million, but he declined to comment on whether the agency supports or opposes the legislation.

Mike Stanard, executive director of the health and education authority, said his agency has a fund balance of about $7.5 million and its core mission of financing institutions “will not be damaged by the transfer” to the disaster recovery fund.

During debate on the bill Wednesday, senators defeated an amendment by Sen. Jason Holsman, D-Kansas City, that would have levied a one-tenth cent sales tax for the disaster recovery fund.

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