News-Leader: Tourism Commission sticks with Tour of Missouri

By Chad Livengood Springfield News-Leader

The Missouri Tourism Commission voted 7-0 today to maintain $1.5 million in funding for the Tour of Missouri bicycle race, despite the fact Gov. Jay Nixon's administration has frozen funds for the international sporting event in September.

In a conference call, many of the commissioners said the independent panel has an obligation to fund the Tour of Missouri this year, but future years would be subject to further debate.

"We as a commission have made this decision and we have to stand by it," said Tourism Commissioner Marci Bennett of St. Joseph.

Nixon's Department of Economic Development has recommended the governor's budget office withhold $1.5 million from the Division of Tourism specifically for the bicycle race that's heavily promoted by Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, a Republican and de facto critic of the Democratic governor.

“It seems like this is a tug of war between the governor’s office and Tourism,” said Commissioner Kelly Swanson, owner of the Port of Kimberling marina and campground on Table Rock Lake.

In April, the Missouri Tourism Commission voted in favor of contributing $1.5 million of its approximately $24 million budget to promoting the bicycle race.

In order to spare the race, Tour of Missouri officials say they need reassurances from Nixon's office that the funding will not be cut by next Friday.

At issue is the Nixon administration ordering the Division of Tourism to submit all expenditures to DED officials for prior approval.Unlike most state agencies, the Division of Tourism is directed by the autonomous Missouri Tourism Commission.Kinder, who chairs the commission, and his general counsel, Rich AuBuchon, said the Nixon administration's restrictions against the Tourism Division is "unprecedented" in state government.

“I am unaware of any other division in state government that has that kind of restriction put on them,” said Kinder, a second-term statewide officeholder and former state senator.

AuBuchon later added: "This type of action is unprecedented and I believe usurps the power of the commission."

Some commissioners hinted that the Tourism Commission is being targeted by Nixon for a political fight with Kinder.

“I do find its strange that we’re the only agency being scrutinized through the voucher system,” Swanson said. “If they’re going to do it, they need to do it to all of the agencies."

Katie Steele Danner, the new deputy director of DED, told the commission the spending restrictions were in response to the governor's mandate that all state departments cut a total of $60 million from the 2010 budget Nixon signed into law last month.

“I have been ensured that this is a temporary situation until we can get our arms the expenditure restriction challenges,” said Danner, who is from Hollister.

Danner said she needed to collect additional information about how much the state subsidizes the Tour of Missouri and who controls the money.

Bob Smith, director of the Division of Tourism, said his agency turns over the $1.5 million to Tour of Missouri Inc., a nonprofit set up by Kinder's office to manage the race in conjunction with a private contractor.The Missouri Development Finance Board, which Kinder used to chair until Nixon took office in January, also contributed $500,000 to the Tour of Missouri from fees it receives for selling tax credits to major developers, Kinder said.

With less than 60 days until the 12-city professional bicycle race begins, Kinder and commissioners pleaded with Danner to get the governor to spare the Tour of Missouri from his budget ax as soon as possible.

Canceling the race this close to the start, Kinder said, "destroys the credibility of the Division of Tourism and the state of Missouri if this goes forward.”

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