By CHRIS BLANK
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) -- Legislative budget writers on Wednesday questioned Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon's approach to issuing bonds for a new high-security facility at the Fulton State Hospital campus.
Nixon wants to issue $198 million in bonds for the state's only maximum-security psychiatric facility, which is the oldest public mental-health facility west of the Mississippi River. Patients include those committed by the courts for evaluation and treatment, and people found not guilty or unable to stand trial because of mental disease.
The governor wants to issue the bonds through a state development board and pay them off through annual legislative appropriations. He proposes setting aside $14 million this year and an additional $14 million in the 2015 budget for the initial bond payments.
It would be different than a general obligation bond, which requires voter approval, and would demand a tax increase if the state ever stopped payments.
House Budget Committee members didn't dispute the need for a new facility. Rather, they questioned Nixon's approach to the bonding, whether money could be included in the budget to avoid the need to bond and if funding needed to be added to the current year's budget.
"If we do this, we are binding the hands of many general assemblies to come without any vote of the people," said Rep. Scott Fitzpatrick, R-Shell Knob.
Rep. Chris Kelly, who has worked on previous bonding proposals, asked why Nixon did not pursue the project sooner. Nixon won a second term in 2012 and cannot seek re-election because of term limits.
"Could it be that prior to an election, he was uncomfortable being the face of debt?" said Kelly, D-Columbia.
Doug Nelson, commissioner of the Office of Administration, said the timing is right given the economy. Nixon also supported bonding last year.
"We believe that this hospital needs to be built, we believe it needs to be built now and we believe that we have offered in his budget a constitutional way ... to move forward on building that hospital," Nelson said.
Missouri's current budget includes $13 million for design, which could be completed by the end of this year. Work could start in spring 2015. Nelson said bonds could be sold in November.
Nixon's administration provided a list of a dozen projects it said were financed in a similar way. The earliest on that list came in 1966 for an office building in Kansas City, and the most recent was in 2006 for a prison in Chillicothe. Other projects included the St. Louis dome and a University of Missouri basketball arena.
Officials in Nixon's administration said the mental health facility would save money from utilities, overtime and workers' compensation costs and would avoid deferred maintenance and need for a new sex offender facility.
House Budget Committee Chairman Rick Stream said the panel would gather more information and would consider several options.
"I think it's a financing issue. How do we finance it," said Stream, R-Kirkwood.