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Port funding restored but still at risk

Monday, April 8, 2002

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Supporters of Southeast Missouri ports are breathing a little easier after the House of Representatives approved a budget bill that would preserve their funding for the coming fiscal year.

However, with many steps to go in the budget process, they are still keeping their fingers crossed.

"Until we know absolutely that it is staying in the budget, we have concerns," said Timmie Lynn Hunter, director of the New Madrid County Port Authority.

The House approved $469,987 in the Department of Transportation's budget to subsidize operating expenses at the state's 12 port authorities. Five of those are in Southeast Missouri and share 68 percent of the state's total spending on ports.

The amount endorsed by the House for the fiscal year beginning July 1 would maintain funding at the level appropriated for the current fiscal year.

In his original budget proposal, Gov. Bob Holden stripped port funding from MoDOT's budget but called for tapping the state Rainy Day Fund to preserve $400,488 in spending, about 85 percent of what was appropriated for this year.

Two-thirds hurdle

While the House removed specific programs from being paid for through the Rainy Day Fund, it is still relying on about $75 million from the state's reserves as an infusion into general revenue to balance the budget. As lawmakers remove and add spending in the regular budget bills, the total amount that may be needed from the fund continues to fluctuate.

Lawmakers still aren't certain they will be able to access the Rainy Day Fund. In order to do so, two-thirds majorities in both legislative chambers would be required. Since revenue thus taken would have to be repaid beginning next year, many believe using the fund would only postpone the problem.

While hopeful of preserving spending for ports, state Rep. Lanie Black, R-Charleston, doubts the legislature will approve using the reserves. Black represents the SEMO, Mississippi County and New Madrid County port authorities.

"I don't think they've got the votes to pass the Rainy Day Fund right now," Black said. "The thing that concerns me is the people who know the most about the budget tell me it's not going to be in any better shape next year."

The House is expected to take up the Rainy Day Fund authorization bill this week.

Though funding for ports is no longer officially reliant on the Rainy Day Fund, if reserves aren't used additional cuts would need to be made.

Once closed, hard to open

If port funding is eliminated from the budget, Hunter said six ports under development, including those in Mississippi County and New Bourbon, would shut down.

"We don't want to see that happen," said Hunter, who is also president of the Missouri Port Authorities Association. "Once those ports shut down, it becomes very hard to get them going again."

Ferry service offered by those port authorities also would be eliminated.

Southeast Missouri's three fully operational ports in New Madrid, Pemiscot and Scott counties would survive by shifting money they receive in fees from capital improvements to operations, Hunter said.

mpowers@semissourian.com

(573) 635-4608


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