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Lawmakers to consider infrastructure measures

Lawmakers to consider infrastructure measures

March 11th, 2013 by Chris Blank, the Associated Press in News

Efforts to increase funding for highways and to pay for construction on college campuses, the state mental health hospital and other infrastructure are likely to take a step forward at the Missouri Capitol.

A House committee plans to vote Tuesday on legislation to authorize bonds for construction while the full Senate is preparing to debate a sales tax proposal that would raise nearly $8 billion over a decade to pay for roads, bridges and other transportation projects.

Both proposals ultimately would require voter approval. Low interest rates, longstanding needs and a desire to support jobs are helping generate momentum in the Legislature for ideas that involve state debt and a tax increase. The upcoming week is the final one before lawmakers take their annual midsession break, which frequently is a line of demarcation between proposals that remain viable and those that have bogged down.

A House committee is considering a bond package that could grow to $1.2 billion and include money for college campuses, state parks, the state Capitol, rural water projects, K-12 schools and economic development initiatives. Lawmakers also are considering whether to establish a cost-sharing component that would require local officials to provide some funding for projects.

"The state's got such a huge backlog of repair and maintenance needs," said chairman Rep. Chris Kelly, D-Columbia.

Ticking off a list of possible projects during a hearing, Kelly mentioned a several-hundred-million-dollar price tag to fund the top priority at each higher education institution, a state Capitol that is "literally falling in," water pollution from Missouri's own parks and the Fulton State Hospital that is the oldest public mental health facility west of the Mississippi River.

Kelly said the Fulton hospital is the most important construction need, and the Department of Mental Health estimates a new high-security facility would cost $211 million. Officials said the project would prevent $73 million of deferred maintenance and capital improvement needs over a decade and save $3 million annually through reduced overtime, workers' compensation claims and utility costs.

Mental Health Department Director Keith Schafer said the hospital is one of the greatest problems for Missouri's mental health system and that a new facility would be safer for employees while improving the treatment environment.

"It is an awful place," Schafer said.

Issues with the state Capitol include electrical problems, mold and crowding. State parks officials said sewer systems are aging and that lodging could be upgraded. Proceeds from the bonds also could establish a revolving fund or low-interest loan program for school districts.

The House committee's plan would involve a state constitutional amendment authorizing bonds that could appear before voters later this year, and a separate legislative resolution to signal what lawmakers intend to fund. Revenue from the bonds would be appropriated through the budget process.

Across the Capitol Rotunda, senators are preparing to tackle transportation needs.

Senate Majority Leader Ron Richard said he plans debate on a measure that would raise Missouri's sales tax by 1 percentage point and dedicate the revenue to transportation. The sales tax measure would be resubmitted to voters once a decade to decide whether to continue it, and 10 percent would go to local transportation projects. The gas tax rate would be frozen and existing roads could not become toll roads.

Richard, R-Joplin, said the leading sponsors are a Republican and a Democrat and that he does not anticipate significant problems.

"I think it brings a bipartisan approach to it," he said.