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Richard predicts federal stimulus to be sole topic during veto session

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 14, 2010 - When Missouri's legislators gather Wednesday in Jefferson City, expect to hear a lot of talk about a film festival last weekend in Warrensburg, Mo. that was funded with $100,000 in federal stimulus funds.

State House Speaker Ron Richard, R-Joplin, cites the festival as a poor use of federal money -- and an example of why the state Legislature should have a stronger say in how federal stimulus money is spent.

That's why he, and presumably Senate allies, will seek on Wednesday to override Gov. Jay Nixon's veto of a measure to set up two new special funds to handle federal stimulus money.

None of the governor's other vetoes is expected to be challenged, Richard said.

The vetoed bill in question, HB 1903, set up special funds to handle federal stimulus aid awarded for the temporary expansion of Medicaid and for the federal education program called "Race to the Top."

In his July 14 veto letter, Nixon said the new funds duplicated two funds set up by the Legislature in 2009 to handle stimulus money. The governor also asserted that the vetoed measure set up legislative approval requirements, in connection with Race to the Top money, that he said unconstitutionally intruded on the powers of the executive branch.

Nixon reaffirmed that stance at a news conference today on other matters, telling reporters that the existing setup is "a system that has worked well. A system that has provided transparency."

But Richard says that the new funds would make the allocation process more transparent and protect against a repeat of the Warrensburg festival, which he says was an inappropriate use of federal stimulus aid.

The state Department of Social Services agrees that the festival was an improper use of federal stimulus aid, and said last week that it was seeking the $100,000 back. The state agency says the money was to be used to help local social-service agencies provide services.

That example aside, Richard said he feared that federal stimulus aid was going into "a black hole to balance the state budget," with no one really knowing how the federal money was being spent.

Over the past two years, Missouri has received almost $4.3 billion in federal stimulus aid. The speaker acknowledges that a sizable chunk of the money has helped the state balance its last two fiscal budgets.

But Richard adds that the help might not have been good for the state in the long run. (Nixon and his aides have said that the stimulus aid prevented onerous budget cuts that would have forced layoffs of thousands more teachers and state workers. Even with the aid, Nixon cut about 2,500 state jobs.)

"It postponed the inevitable,'' said Richard, referring to the belt-tightening that Nixon's budget office already has ordered for the next fiscal year that begins July 1, 2011. That budget will see less federal stimulus help.

Richard noted that state legislators had initially sought to reject the federal stimulus money back in 2009 and then considered sending the money back to Missouri taxpayers. Nixon and the federal government helped nix those ideas,

Should Missouri have turned back the federal help? "It's hard to say,'' Richard said.

Noting the current rising public ire over the federal aid, Richard observed that Missouri Republicans "maybe were ahead of the country'' when concern was raised two years ago.

But while that backdrop also is likely to be brought up Wednesday, Richard acknowledges that it also will be tough for the House to muster the needed 109 votes to override. Even if all members show up, and if all 89 Republicans stick together and vote for the override, an additional 20 Democrats will be needed, the speaker said.

At the very least, the speaker said, "We're going to have a discussion about it."

Richard predicts, though, that the veto session -- including any debate -- will last no more than 90 minutes. The Missouri Legislature last saw a long combative veto session in 2003, when both chambers overrode then-Gov. Bob Holden's veto of a bill allowed many Missourians to carry concealed weapons.

After this session's expected short duration, the House then is to participate in ceremonies honoring departing members and to mark a new bust of former Gov. Warren Hearnes that is being installed in the Capitol's Hall of Famous Missourians.

Richard then will give up his gavel, but he won't be leaving the Legislature. He's moving down the hall, where he most likely join the Missouri Senate in January. Richard has no Democratic opposition in November.

In the Senate, Richard said his emphasis will be on job creation, his pet concern in the Missouri House.

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.

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