"In this budget climate, where we're making slash-and-burn cuts in Medicaid, I think we need to act cautiously before we hand out corporate subsidies" - Rep. Rachel Storch, D-St. Louis
Missouri funds for agricultural pharmaceutical center draw fire
Post-Dispatch Jefferson City Bureau
St Louis Post-Dispatch, 4 May 2005
JEFFERSON CITY - Some Democrats are questioning a late addition to the state budget that would funnel more than $1 million next year toward construction of an agricultural pharmaceutical center in northwestern Missouri.
A state board would issue bonds to build the $30 million Center of Excellence in Maryville, Mo. Anchoring the project would be California-based Ventria Bioscience, which has genetically engineered rice seeds to produce human proteins for use in drugs.
House-Senate negotiators slipped the project's funding into the state's $19.2 billion operating budget on Monday. The Legislature passed half the budget bills Wednesday and is expected to sign off on the rest - including the bioscience center funding - today.
Rep. Rachel Storch, D-St. Louis, said the bioscience center needed more scrutiny than the brief presentation that budget negotiators received. She said there is still "much controversy" about whether Ventria's production of genetically modified rice could harm Missouri's rice farmers.
"In this budget climate, where we're making slash-and-burn cuts in Medicaid, I think we need to act cautiously before we hand out corporate subsidies," Storch said.
Under the plan, state taxpayers would spend $1.1 million a year for 15 years to help cover the center's debt. The federal government and private local sources would be expected to pay the rest.
House-Senate negotiators usually discuss only items approved by at least one chamber. But the bioscience center was on neither list; it surfaced for the first time Monday, allowing no public input.
It did have an inside track: It would be in the district of House Budget Chairman Brad Lager, R-Maryville.
Lager said in an interview that he pulled no special strings. He said the project has been in the planning stages for months at the Department of Economic Development and Northwest Missouri State University. The center would be on the university's campus.
The planners recently decided to ask the Missouri Development Finance Board to float the bonds and to lease the building to the state. That spurred the request for general revenue to help pay the construction cost.
"It has nothing to do with me being budget chair," Lager said. "This is truly an economic development piece."
Ventria plans to move its headquarters to Missouri from Sacramento, Calif. Sen. David Klindt, R-Bethany, told budget negotiators Monday that four additional high-tech companies are expected to move into the bioscience center within five years, generating 226 high-paying jobs.
"We're at a point where we have to invest in our future," Klindt said.
Reporter Virginia Young