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As legislative threats mount to stadium plan, Nixon brushes criticism aside

Gov. Jay Nixon says legislators blew their chance to have a say on bonding for a stadium in St. Louis.
File photo by Bill Greenblatt I UPI
Gov. Jay Nixon says legislators blew their chance to have a say on bonding for a stadium in St. Louis.

Gov. Jay Nixon is facing explicit warnings from key legislators that they won’t approve payments on bonds for a new football stadium on St. Louis’ riverfront if they aren’t first approved by a legislative or public vote.

But the Democratic governor is dismissing the threats as too little, too late – pointing to inaction during the past legislative session.

“The fact that -- in the interim -- four, five or six folks start talking about it out of a legislature with 200 people? They’re certainly entitled to say what they want,” Nixon said on Thursday. “But it is not going to dramatically affect continued progress we’re making in a taxpayer-sensitive way to move forward.”

Nixon and other civic leaders are strongly backing a roughly $1 billion stadium on St. Louis riverfront. Part of that financing would come from “extending” state and local bonds on the Edward Jones Dome.

This artist's rendering shows an aerial view of the massing model of the new football stadium, looking southwest.
Credit HOK | 360 Architecture
This artist's rendering shows an aerial view of the massing model of the new football stadium, looking southwest.

But if Nixon issues state bonds without legislative or popular approval, a number of influential lawmakers have promised to block the bond payments. That includes the current (Rep. Tom Flannigan, R-Carthage, and Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia) and future chairmen (Rep. Scott Fitzpatrick, R-Shell Knob, and Sen. Ryan Silvey, R-Kansas City) of the legislature’s budget committees and nearly a half-dozen Republican senators.

The threats matter because budget chairmen have immense power to add and remove items in appropriations legislation. Fitzpatrick, for instance, said in a letter to Nixon that he “will do everything within my power” to ensure “that this plan does not go forward unless there is first an affirmative vote of the people or the General Assembly specifically authorizing the issuance of debt.”

And Senate Appropriations Vice Chairman Ryan Silvey added in a telephone interview, “There’s no way I’m going to sit by and let this money be appropriated without any buy-in from the public or their representatives.

“I think it’s extremely significant,” Silvey said. “Now you have the House chairman and the House vice chairman. You have the Senate Appropriations chairman on record, you have me as the vice chair on record basically saying that we aren’t going to do this unless there’s some buy-in form the public.”

Even if the bond payments made it into a draft of the budget, it’s nearly impossible to a break five- or six-person filibuster without using the “previous question” motion. And since they took power in 2001, Republicans have never used that maneuver against their own caucus.

“I think it’s dead on arrival,” said Sen. Bob Onder, R-Lake Saint Louis. “I don’t why Nixon is spending the last year of his administration trying to pull a stunt like this. But it’s not going to be successful.”

Onder wondered aloud if anybody would even purchase the stadium bonds if they knew the General Assembly wouldn’t appropriate money toward their repayment. Sen. Rob Schaaf, R-St. Joseph, asked Office of Administration director Doug Nelson during a Thursday committee hearing if potential bondholders would be informed of likely legislative opposition, Nelson said, “I’m going to review it at the time when it hits my desk.”

“Those bonds are sold with the understanding they’re subject to appropriation,” Nelson said. “If there’s relevant information that needs to go into that disclosure statement, it’s going to go in. If this is deemed to be relevant, it will go in.”

Shake it off

But after a press conference announcing $5 million of capital improvements in the St. Louis Community College system, Nixon effectively brushed off the statements from legislators.

Nixon talked with St. Louis Public Radio's Jason Rosenbaum on Thursday about the growing legislative opposition to issuing bonds to a St. Louis football stadium without a legislative or popular vote.

Nixon said that lawmakers effectively blew their chance to chime in on the stadium plan with either standalone legislation or through the budget process. He pointed to a specific episode during the budgetary conference committee where lawmakers removed language requiring a legislative or statewide vote before issuing bonds for the new stadium.

“They had language that would have limited this. And after discussing it, they took that language off,” Nixon said. “And the vast majority of the people that we’re talking about now voted for that budget with that language off of there. So the fact that in the interim, four or five members decide to continue to talk about things – it’s their right. They’re elected officials. They can do that. But it’s certainly not going to dramatically affect the solid progress on the six principles we laid out prior to the time the legislature came into session last year.”

(You can look at Nixon’s six principles, by the way, on this website.)

Nixon and other stadium backers have cited a tight NFL timeframe for nailing down funding details for the stadium. He said “tarrying here too long will make us less competitive.

“This is a really important time for St. Louis. We have a chance to redevelop the riverfront in a very positive way, get folks back to work down there and remain a NFL city,” Nixon said. “And it’s important at this particular point that we look at continuing to make process. Now it’s important for folks to note that unless we have a team or unless we have a straight commitment from the NFL, we’re not going to move forward on any of this. So the bottom line is that we need to be well positioned and well-ready to make sure St. Louis remains a NFL city.”

Silvey, though, said the governor was “grasping at straws” if he felt that conference committee episode amounted to the legislature’s final word on Nixon’s stadium plan. He and Schaaf blamed former House Speaker John Diehl, R-Town and Country, for taking out restrictive language out of the budget bill and for scuttling legislation requiring some sort of vote to extend the bonds.

And Schaaf said if Nixon moves forward in “saying that this group of legislators are insignificant, then he’s making a terrible mistake.” 

“It may not be that he’s not taking it seriously so much that he’s just not acknowledging it publicly yet,” Schaaf said. “I mean, the governor was in the Senate. He knows full well what the process is. … He knows there is no possibility that that appropriation will make it through the process.”

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.
Marshal was a political reporter for St. Louis Public Radio until 2018.