Pay me now or pay me later. And later. And later.

We are now less than a month away from the opening of the 2013 legislative session.  And there’s the smell of money in the air. The Missourinet will be reporting in the next several months on how Missouri’s lawmakers and officials inhale and exhale that eau de dough.  Let’s see if we can wade through the circumstances and look at some of the considerations they might consider as they deal with that oxygen of politics, money.

Thirty years ago, Christopher Bond was again the Governor and the economy was not good.  He got behind a $600,000,000 bond issue to pay for major infrastructure development that he also argued would create thosuands of jobs.  Missourians barely approved it.

Our Capitol press corps colleague David Lieb of the Associated Press recalled that series of events in his story a few weekends ago that you might have read in your newspaper.  David was a boy when Missouri put itself into debt for that program.  Now he’s grown up and has a family and is the AP Bureau Chief in Jefferson City.  All the time that he has been growing up, graduating from high school and college, getting married, having children, and working to become an outstanding reporter, the state of Missouri has been paying for those bonds.  Year after year, millions of dollars that could have been spent for ongoing needs have gone instead to pay the principle and interest on that bond issue.

David reported that the state paid $1.25 billion to finance the instant infrastructure gratification the state got so long ago that Christopher Bond  was not yet a Senator, let alone a retired Senator. The bonds were issued so long ago that some of the buildings built with that money need repairs today.

Well, the bonds are paid off now.  So the state has several million dollars available for something else.  Perhaps that money could help meet the state’s promise to public schools that it would fully fund the state aid formula within seven years after it was enacted.  The state has broken that promise to the tune of about $400 million or so.  But we haven’t heard any member sof the legislature suggest the money that is not going to pay off bonds go instead to schools.

The problem with having millions of dollars available for something else raises the spectre that somebody will decide the proper response is to cut taxes by that much, probably taxes on businesses so they can keep more of their money and use it to create jobs.   And, in fact, there are those who advocate such a thing regardless of whether bond payment money is available.

Some of our lawmakers have been saying for two or three years that when young Christopher Bond’s bonds are paid off, the state should go back into debt again for another thirty years for even more money for more buildings the state has not built in the last thirty years or to pay for repairs and renovations of buildings the state has not renovated or repaired for many of the last thirty years because, among other things, it was spending millions of dollars to pay off Bond’s bonds.

Some of the talk is about borrowing $1,000,000,000.  That’s the “B-word.”  It’s the perfect time to approve an even bigger debt, say proponents.  Interest rates are low, after all.    So let’s tie up millions of dollars a year for thirty more years of debt payments with interest when we’re already not meeting our obligations to our schools, cutting other services, and contemplating more cuts in the tax structure that pays for general state operations.

We went down this road with the transportation department.  Long before Congress wore out the phrase “fiscal cliff” within hours of its first use in describing the current deficit problems, the head of the Missouri Department of Transportation was speaking of a transportation program going over the cliff if additional revenue wasn’t found.  Through all those years, lawmakers, state officials, the department, and transportation interests did the weather thing–they talked about it but didn’t do anything about it.

So MODOT used up its bond money and now finds that its income is continuing to decline because of greater numbers of fuel efficient vehicles that don’t generate needed fuel tax collections. Now the department is saying it has enough money to maintain the system we have–as long as it is capable of being maintained–but it doesn’t have enough money to build new roads and bridges or meet increased needs of alternative forms of transportation. And while it diverts money needed for construction to pay off the bonds that provided some instant road and bridge gratification, I-70 continues to rot from underneath;  I-44 grows older and older; the potential for southeast Missouri port development to take advantage of massive increases in Gulf of Mexico shipping with the expansion of the Panama canal, turning Missouri into a huge shipping center for middle America goes begging; and on and on it goes.

But that’s okay because many of our political leaders have argued for years that taxpayers know how to spend their money better than the state does, so they have let them keep more of it and want to let them keep even more while considering a plan that will have the state using more of its limited resources to pay interest on bonds to finance things the public didn’t decide to spend its own money on after all.

And some people think politics is dull.  Reporters are some of the luckiest people in the world.  We get paid to watch this stuff.   We’re waiting for noon, January 9, 2013.  Showtime at the Capitol.

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