House majority may have cooled on MoDOT change

Wednesday, January 22, 2003

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- While the minority party in the House of Representatives, Republicans called for weakening the constitutional independence of the Missouri Department of Transportation by giving the governor the power to hire and fire its director.

However, when Democratic Gov. Bob Holden suggested doing just that last week before a joint session of the General Assembly, only a handful of Republicans, who now control both legislative chambers, applauded the idea while most reacted with silence.

Reducing the Missouri State Highways and Transportation Commission, MoDOT's governing authority, to an advisory role while making the post of department director a gubernatorial appointment was an official House GOP Caucus position two years ago. Although most members of the then-minority party still supported the idea last year, they didn't seriously pursue it after Republican leaders in the Senate declined to get on board.

House Speaker Catherine Hanaway, R-Warson Woods, said enthusiasm for the proposal may have waned in her caucus, a majority of whose members are freshmen legislators.

"With 56 new members, what was a caucus position in the past may not be a caucus position today," Hanaway said.

Commission dates to '20s

The highways commission was created in the 1920s with the intent of insulating road construction decisions from political pressure. The panel's six members are appointed by the governor with the consent of the Senate. Once confirmed, commissioners cannot be removed during their six-year terms.

MoDOT's director, who runs the day-to-day operations of the department, is chosen by the commission and serves at its pleasure.

Critics contend the independence the commission and department enjoy under the Missouri Constitution has led to a lack of accountability. Mistrust of MoDOT is an oft-cited reason for the nearly 3-to-1 ballot defeat of a $483 million transportation tax proposal in August.

Holden proposes a constitutional amendment that would give him and future governors the authority to name MoDOT's director, just as he picks most other Cabinet-level officials. A nominee for director would be subject to Senate confirmation.

"The public has expressed a lack of confidence in the current structure, and we cannot address underfunding until we address accountability," Holden said.

More commissioners

The commission would expand to nine members, one from each congressional district to ensure regional representation. However, it would lose much of its authority to set department policy. The responsibility for managing the department would ultimately rest with the governor, who could order the director to enact certain policies and remove him for failure to do so.

If approved by lawmakers, the proposed constitutional change would go on the statewide ballot.

Initially a Republican proposal, Holden included it as part of a package of transportation taxes and reforms he presented to lawmakers in 2001. That legislation cleared the House, but the proposed changes in commission structure and power were stripped in the Senate, where the bill ultimately died.

Holden largely remained on the sidelines during last year's legislative debate that led to the tax package voters defeated in August.

While House support for giving the governor say as to how MoDOT is run may have slipped, it was never particularly strong in the Senate. Senate President Pro Tem Peter Kinder, R-Cape Girardeau, said the upper chamber will likely take a skeptical view of the proposal.

"The devil on the restructuring of MoDOT will be in the details," Kinder said.

Republican-sponsored measures similar to what Holden proposes have been filed in both chambers.

mpowers@semissourian.com

(573) 635-4608

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