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Accountibility for The Department of Transportation

January 20, 1998
By: Tristin Yeager
State Capital Bureau

Dissatisfaction with the operations of the Missouri Department of Transportation has prompted State Representatives from both parties to draft accountability legislation. Tristin Yeager reports from the State Capitol. The bills were introduced in response to public and legislative complaints over a committee report on the 15-year highway construction plan. The plan was promised as part of the six cent gas tax increase passed by legislators in 1992.

One bill, sponsored by House Democratic Leader Gracia Backer, would require The Transportation Department to submit annual expenditure reports detailing all department financial, project and administrative activity. This bill would need voter approval and would result in a constitutional amendment. Backer describes the differences between her bill and the Republican's version.

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A Republican bill, sponsored by Representative Charles Pryor, would require The Transportation Department to submit annual financial and project reports that detail budget allocations and expenditures. The bill would also establish a joint committee to annually review the department's reports. Pryor's bill, in contrast to Backer's, would not require voter approval or a consitutional amendment, but would result in an amendment to statuatory law. Pryor compares his bill to Backer's.

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The primary difference in these two bills is based in the difference between statuatory and constitutional law. Currently, the constitution identifies The Transportation Department as being completely autonomous from the legislature. Therefore, the legislature cannot intervene in the department's budget or administrative agendas. A constitutional amendment would force the department to meet the requirements of a bill. A statuatory law does not affect the constitution and the department would not be forced to comply if it chose to claim constitutional priviledge. Most parties agree that the two bills differ more in the level of legal strength than in purpose.

Reaction to the proposed legislation is varied. Mike Golden, The Transportation Department's Chief Operating Officer says he favors whatever action will assist in improving the public's opinion of the department, but says that legislation is not necessary.

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Central Missouri Republican Senator John Russell was on the committee that reviewed the 15-Year Plan and maintains that The Transportation Department does not need outside political intervention.

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Legislative and staff sources say that more bills on this issue will be introduced this session. These bills will bring other particulars to the issue of The Transportation Department's accountability.