Government & Politics

After hours of infighting on bridge funding, Missouri Republicans close to agreement

Gov. Mike Parson has been negotiating with Senate conservatives to fund bridge repairs.
Gov. Mike Parson has been negotiating with Senate conservatives to fund bridge repairs. AP file photo

After a 10-hour filibuster that ran until 2 a.m. Wednesday morning, competing factions within the Missouri Legislature may have a workable solution for funding bridge repairs. 

According to Senate President Pro-Tem Dave Schatz, Missouri Senate leadership has struck a “tentative agreement” with members of the Conservative Caucus, a group of Republican senators that stymied a $350 million bonding proposal backed by Republican Gov. Mike Parson.

The new proposal -- which will be heard in the Senate Thursday -- will include $300 million in bonds, paid back by the state over 7 years, at a cost of about $45 million per year. The bonds will only be issued if the state is awarded federal grant money later this year.

The agreement also calls for $50 million to remain in the state budget for road repairs, and another $35 to $50 million to be made available to counties and cities for matching grants to fund infrastructure repairs. 

The compromise could mean the five senators filibustering the legislation would allow the proposal to come to a vote.

Members of the Conservative Caucus and Schatz agreed that the new proposal did not mean a done deal.

“This is like Whac-a-mole,” Schatz said, of the concerns raised by senators about the legislation, which he sponsored.

After Missouri voters rejected a 10-cent motor fuel tax last year, how to fund bridge repairs has triggered arguments among Republican state lawmakers.

To fix 251 bridges, Parson made issuance of $350 million in bonds, paid back over 30 years, one of his signature goals.

The proposal was rebuffed in the Missouri House. Led by Budget Chair Cody Smith, the House passed its own version of the state budget with a $100 million in state revenue for bridge repairs so as not incur any debt. 

Smith, R-Carthage, has since said he would be open to bonding if it would help draw down federal funds.

The Missouri Department of Transportation applied for two federal grants in March, one to repair 251 bridges and another to fix the Interstate-70 bridge to Rocheport. It expects to hear this fall if it has won the highly competitive INFRA grant.

Members of the Conservative Caucus, Sen. Bill Eigel, R-St. Charles, and Sen. Bob Onder, R-Lake Saint Louis, said they wanted to maintain the $100 million for infrastructure repairs in the state budget.

“It’s difficult for me to envision any kind of compromise or solution that doesn’t include protecting the work or the steps forward Rep. Smith has made,” Eigel said.

Onder said only having bonding if federal funds were awarded would keep the Senate from moving forward on “blind faith.”

“Until this idea of a ‘trigger,’ we were incurring debt for the chance (of an INFRA grant award), and remember 49 other states are applying for this grant,” Onder said. 

During the filibuster, Eigel, citing a passage in the state constitution, questioned whether legislators could issue bonds of more than $1 million without a constitutional amendment.

“It’s possible we have a little bit of flexibility but...this may be a resolution I’m never be able to vote yes on, along these concerns,” Eigel said Wednesday.

Eigel said he met with Parson Wednesday. He said Parson asked for his assistance in passing his priorities, including transportation funding.

“(Parson)’s been a champion on this issue,” Eigel said. “Regardless of party, I want to deliver a win for the people of Missouri.”

The newest proposal Thursday would be the second compromise the Senate would debate.

Schatz, R-Sullivan, rolled out a compromise Tuesday: $350 million in bonding, paid back over 7 years, with a $56 million payment. The new schedule would have cut the interest by $75 million.

Prior to that proposal Tuesday, Schatz said he expected “healthy discussion” on the floor that would allow for negotiations off the floor. What ensued was a 10-hour filibuster.

Democrats were quick to point out the chamber had come to a halt twice in one week because of intraparty fights.

“Under the control of the Republicans, you all can’t seem to get it together,” Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis, said.

If Schatz’s proposal were to pass in the Senate, it would still need approval in the Missouri House.