JEFFERSON CITY — As Missouri Gov. Mike Parson prepares to deliver his annual State of the State address next week, his office and state lawmakers are keeping his priorities close to the vest.
Earlier this week, the Republican governor met with GOP leaders from both chambers of the Missouri General Assembly to talk about this year’s legislative session. So far, those who attended the meetings have remained mum on what Parson plans to propose.
But, during his time in office, Parson has had two major priorities: workforce development and infrastructure — such as improving roads and bridges. Those priorities are likely to be recurring themes in his final two years as governor. Missouri is sitting on a massive $6 billion budget surplus, which could offer Parson an opportunity to get some of those priorities across the finish line.
“He’s drilled in on that workforce development, infrastructure narrative for as long as he’s been there,” Senate President Pro Tem Caleb Rowden, a Columbia Republican, told The Star. “I would assume his last two years will look a lot like his first four as he starts to wrap this up.”
On top of setting his administration’s priorities for this year’s session, Parson will also likely look to solidify his legacy in the coming years. He will have to balance that legacy with the priorities and desires of the lawmakers in the Missouri General Assembly.
“The thing that will be most interesting to me is to see how much it aligns with what we’ve heard from leadership out of the House and Senate and how those priorities work together moving forward in the next few years,” said Jean Evans, a former executive director of the Missouri GOP. “If they all make it a priority, it’s probably going to get done.”
Infrastructure has long been a priority for Parson, and the Republican governor has spoken broadly about spending more on projects in the coming years. During last year’s budget rollout, Parson proposed massive new spending on infrastructure and college and university buildings.
And even as Parson touted a strong economy and workforce development programs last year, he asked lawmakers for more investments in the state’s workforce. He has referred to Missouri’s high rates of teacher turnover as “unacceptable” and called for lawmakers to increase state worker and teacher pay.
Those issues will likely be recurring themes this year. Kelli Jones, Parson’s spokesperson, said in a text to The Star she couldn’t reveal Parson’s priorities ahead of his State of the State address on Jan. 18, but offered a brief preview.
“Workforce and infrastructure!” the text said.
Highway projects and the workforce
Rowden told The Star that he would like to see the governor prioritize large, one-time infrastructure investments, such as highway projects and improvements. He pointed to the state’s historic amount of unspent revenue as an opportunity for “generational stuff that’s going to matter.”
“Now’s as good a time as any to do that with the surplus dollars that we have,” he said.
House Majority Leader Jonathan Patterson, a Lee’s Summit Republican, said he expects Parson to focus on workforce issues, health care, education and transportation.
“I think you’re going to see us using the funds that we have for transportation to work on a number of projects, most significantly, I-70,” Patterson said.
While he said he does not expect the entirety of the interstate — which connects Kansas City and St. Louis — will be part of a project, parts of it will likely be.
House Minority Leader Crystal Quade, a Springfield Democrat, said that she is tuned into efforts to improve I-70, but hopes broadband is part of infrastructure discussions too.
“For us, it goes beyond just the roads and bridges conversation with infrastructure,” Quade said.
Patterson said Parson is also focused on getting high school students into the workforce if they do not want to pursue a college degree. Parson does not have a college degree.
The Republican governor has already signaled that increasing state worker pay will also be one of his priorities this session. Parson on Wednesday rolled out a $152 million plan that would give all state employees an 8.7% cost of living raise by the end of March. He touted the proposal as necessary to fill the more than 7,000 open positions in state government.
“There is no question that the recruitment and retention of state employees have been a severe problem for our state and we must do better,” he said in a statement.
State Rep. Peter Merideth, a St. Louis Democrat, said Parson’s recommendation is a strong indicator that he understands the emergency situation with state worker staffing.
“That’s a pretty hefty increase,” Merideth said. “I think it is a really great start and I hope that he looks to do even more in the full budget for the next fiscal year.”
Child care and tax cuts?
During his time as governor, Parson has had to strike a balance between lawmakers’ desires for new spending and tax cuts. The Republican governor has previously spoken in favor of some cuts, but has cautioned lawmakers to use some of the unspent revenue on infrastructure projects and supporting the state’s workforce.
During a special session last year, Parson secured an income tax cut that lowered the state’s top income tax rate from 5.3% to 4.95%. But Republican lawmakers are calling for more this session.
“If we give it back to the people of the state, they spend the money and they drive the economy — that’s one of the great things about doing some tax cuts,” Parson previously told The Star. “But the thing that we really isolate all the whole time is workforce development infrastructure. Those are the keys to how the states prosper.”
If Parson does propose tax cuts this session, he will face significant opposition from Democrats, who say the state’s budget surplus offers an opportunity to address areas that have been neglected. Democrats have called for state money and legislation to increase both state worker and teacher pay.
Parson told Democratic leadership that he is satisfied with the tax cuts approved in last year’s special session, and is looking forward to discussing issues like child care and raising teacher pay this year, Quade said.
“I am hopeful that he will remain true to his word on that front, and that he won’t be pushing any more tax cuts, but instead focusing on investing that money in Missourians,” Quade said.
State lawmakers from both parties say they are hopeful that Parson will propose a plan to improve access to child care services statewide at the State of the State. If he does, Parson and Republicans will likely frame the issue of child care as a business issue.
Patterson said he expects Parson to prioritize tax credits and incentives for businesses that help employees with child care. He also highlighted legislation filed this session that would increase the number of pre-K students allowed into preschool.
The bipartisan push comes as the state is losing out on millions in tax revenue due to parents who leave the workforce because of child care issues. The difficulty in finding affordable care in rural areas has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
In last year’s budget, lawmakers approved, and Parson signed, $10 million in federal COVID-19 money last year to help businesses add child care services or partner with child care providers.
While both Democrats and Republicans have filed several bills this year related to expanding child care services, several lawmakers said they were waiting to see what Parson proposes for the budget next week.
Merideth, the St. Louis Democrat, said he hopes Parson will set aside partisan politics in the last years of his term to focus on practical investments because he is not running for office again.
“I think he has a real chance to make his legacy trying to invest in the workers and the needs of the state,” he said.
How it works: The Missouri House and Senate
Missouri's Legislature reflects the federal structure in many ways. Video by Beth O'Malley