Missouri House passes $46 billion budget package
Missouri House passes $46 billion budget package
BY TEGHAN SIMONTON
Missouri News Network
JEFFERSON CITY — The Missouri House passed more than a dozen budget bills Thursday to allocate about $46 billion to state programs and capital projects. The bills leave a surplus of nearly $2 billion unspent, despite repeated attempts by Democrats to allocate the funds.
The surplus stems from a massive influx of COVID-19-related federal funds, as well as an unexpected increase in state tax revenue.
House Budget Committee Chairman Cody Smith, R-Carthage, said his goal in crafting a budget plan was “to try to think this through, to try to invest it in such a way that we can look back on it in 20 or 30 years and think that we made some really good decisions with this opportunity that we’re given.”
The budget includes increased funding for higher education, investment in infrastructure and a myriad of other projects for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1. And though Democrats urged the body to dip into surplus funds, the budget won wide bipartisan support on numerous fronts.
Among the measures included in the budget: Medicaid was expanded for low-income, working-age adults. Amtrak received $2.4 million to restore two trains each day between St. Louis and Kansas City. In public safety, two new investigators will be added to the POST Commission, a regulatory program for peace officers. And $100 million was added to increase rates for primary care medical providers who participate in the Medicaid program.
An increase of $9.4 million was set aside for First Steps, an early intervention program for young children with disabilities, while an extra $5.8 million was allocated to Parents as Teachers, a parent education program.
Support from both parties also secured an amendment that allocated $20 million for two programs that would cover child care costs for small businesses and essential workers.
Though many state programs received full funding or boosts in cash, House Democrats said some aspects of the budget fell short, pleading with their colleagues to utilize the surplus funds that remain unallocated. As the House sifted through 15 bills related to the budget, Democrats sought to spend the surplus to address lingering problems and equity gaps.
They also raised issue with a provision that prohibits funding for any event that requires or inquires about COVID-19 vaccination or testing. The item, added by Rep. Chris Sander, R-Lone Jack, is present in all of the operating budget bills.
“This could be a bill we could probably get almost unanimous support for if we weren’t trying to legislate through the budget with our language,” said Rep. Ingrid Burnett, D-Kansas City, when the provision appeared on the bill allocating funds to the Department of Higher Education and Workforce Development.
In the higher education sector, the Access, A+ and Bright Flight scholarships each received full funding, and money was also allocated to allow for a 5.5% increase for state universities’ core budgets.
In a separate bill funded with federal American Rescue Plan Act funds, $104.5 million was allocated for further development of MU’s NextGen Precision Health Institute. The research facility, which opened in October, is dedicated to medical technologies tailored to each patient based on factors such as genetics and lifestyle. Each public university in the state would get its top priority capital project.
Still, some House members felt more money could be going to the state’s public colleges and universities.
“This is a safe place to invest our dollars in the future of our state,” said Rep. Peter Merideth, D-St. Louis. “In growing our workforce and saying we, as a state, prioritize higher education, prioritize workforce development.”
More than $10 billion was allocated to K-12 schools, but Democrats noted the budget fails to fund the teacher pay raise proposed by the governor. Gov. Mike Parson proposed a $21.8 million program that would match local school district funds to hire and retain teachers, along with raising their base salary to $38,000 per year.
Rep. Maggie Nurrenbern, D-Kansas City, said the bill underfunds school transportation, which she called “our most basic obligation to schools.” About $114 million is allocated to school transportation costs.
She and other Democrats raised alarm at the growing number of school districts across Missouri that have opted to implement four-day weeks — decisions they say are due to districts’ inability to fund the traditional five-day week. They noted the trend causes problems for parents coordinating child care, disproportionately takes women out of the workforce, and puts strains on teachers who must still meet certain academic standards.
But the main subject of debate was the general revenue surplus. Republicans advocated for saving the money.
“A hungry nation has but one problem. A full nation has many,” said Rep. Rusty Black, R-Chillicothe, who chairs the Appropriations Subcommittee on Education. “We understand we’re a full nation, aren’t we? We have so much money that we’re talking about that we’ve created problems, almost, with these additional funds.”
Referencing Black’s statement, Merideth said the surplus should be put toward addressing equity gaps and longstanding problems.
“We still have a lot of hungry individuals and a lot of hungry institutions in our state that we’ve been starving for the last couple decades,” he said. “The actual end result of this funding approach is less equitable funding.”
The bills are now headed to the Senate, where leadership said it’s likely there will be negotiations to spend at least some of the surplus.
“I certainly agree with the idea that we’re definitely not going to spend every dollar,” said Senate Majority Leader Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia. “I do not think we will leave $1.8 billion … I think we’ll find a good, reasonable middle ground.”
Republican and Democratic leaders in the Senate expressed desires to fund the governor’s proposed pay raise for teachers.
“If we’re going to ask as much as what we ask of our teachers and have a job that requires such passion, they shouldn’t be buying school supplies for their kids out of their own pockets. We should be providing them with a living wage,” said Senate Minority Leader John Rizzo, D-Independence.
Rizzo also criticized the House for not passing the budget sooner. The budget is required to pass through both chambers by May 6, according to the Missouri Constitution.
“This is way too late in the game,” he said. “We’re going to be really butting up against that constitutional deadline. I just don’t understand the process by which politically, constitutionally, ethically, why they’re dragging their feet.”
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