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Missouri is flush with cash, but House leaves some money out of the state budget

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Missouri Capitol, Jefferson City

The Missouri State Capitol building in Jefferson City is lit up on Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2022. Photo by David Carson, dcarson@post-dispatch.com

JEFFERSON CITY — Members of the Missouri House put finishing touches on their version of a new state budget Tuesday that leaves nearly $2 billion in general tax revenues unspent.

The overall $46.1 billion spending plan, which covers state programs for the fiscal year beginning July 1, includes money for a range of major construction projects but doesn’t include as much money sought by Republican Gov. Mike Parson to raise teacher salaries and shore up the state pension system.

Rep. Cody Smith, R-Carthage, who chairs the House Budget Committee, made it a priority to withhold some of the largesse that has flowed into state coffers during the pandemic, arguing that it should be saved for future economic downturns.

A lengthy debate on the blueprint came on a day when Parson’s budget office reported that net general revenue collections for the current fiscal year have increased 5.6% compared with March 2021, from $7.85 billion last year to $8.29 billion this year. The increase will only add to the state’s already flush bottom line.

Among the top takeaways from more than six hours of debate was a reduction in the amount of federal stimulus money sought by Parson. The GOP-controlled House version spends $2.2 billion, compared with the $3.2 billion that Parson wanted to use for one-time construction projects.

Smith said phasing in the spending for some of the projects would allow lawmakers to better monitor the influx of federal dollars.

“We’re not trying to lose any of these dollars or send them back to the federal government,” Smith said.

House Minority Leader Crystal Quade, D-Springfield, decried the Republican decision to leave money on the table for the Senate to dig into without House input.

“We are handing them a blank check,” Quade said. “The senators are going to spend this money.”

Republicans dismissed what they called “caterwauling” by Democrats.

“The Senate will do what the Senate will do,” said Rep. Dirk Deaton, R-Noel.

The House’s slower-than-usual approach to the budget has been panned by leaders in the Senate, who said the delays may have been intentional.

The two chambers face a May 7 deadline to finish the budget. Pending final approval in the House this week, the Senate could take up the proposal beginning next week.

Senate Majority Leader Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, said he would call the Senate into a special session to finish the plan if it does not get done in time.

In January, Parson outlined a plan to increase the starting pay of educators, which is the lowest in the nation. An estimated 4,000 teachers are making between $25,000 and $35,000 annually.

Parson said that low rate, equal to about $12 an hour, has made it hard for schools to recruit and retain teachers.

In response, the House added $37.4 million for school districts to boost teacher pay.

Some Democrats wanted at least $100 million more, saying school districts could use the money to address high turnover rates among younger teachers. Democrats also were turned down in an attempt to add $214 million to fully fund school bus transportation costs.

“I think we all agree that needs to be addressed,” said Rep. Peter Merideth, D-St. Louis. “We have a lot of money this year.”

Rep. Betsy Fogle, D-Springfield, won approval to direct $20 million in state funds to two programs that will help cover child care costs for small businesses and essential workers, including state agencies.

Rep. Kevin Windham, D-Hillsdale, was successful in adding $4.5 million to the Access Missouri college scholarship program.

The state’s transportation budget will add $100 million to upgrade low-volume rural roads and $75 million for a cost-sharing program with cities and counties.

The budget also includes an additional $2.4 million to restore Amtrak to twice-daily service between St. Louis and Kansas City.

After the state shortchanged the nation’s passenger rail service in last year’s budget, Amtrak cut its service to once per day in January.

The spending plan also includes $3.2 million to help pay for the demolition of abandoned, city-owned houses in St. Louis.

And it boosts spending on home health care services for low-income Missourians by $300 million.

Parson had sought to use $500 million in federal funds to shore up the state employee retirement fund. The House instead put $299 million toward the idea, with a promise that they’d phase in the full amount over five years.

Smith also pushed through an amendment to ensure no state money goes to Planned Parenthood, which accepts patients on Medicaid.

Democrats said the move would die in a courtroom.

“This is unconstitutional language. It’s similar to language that’s in court right now, likely to be struck down,” Merideth said.

Like other states, Missouri is putting much of the money it received via the American Rescue Plan Act into one-time projects, including large chunks of cash to public universities to make campus improvements and investments in new state buildings.

Broadband expansion, for example, has become a priority after the pandemic showed major gaps in internet service at a time when more people were attempting to work and shop from home.

But rather than spend $30 million to build new cell towers in some areas of the state, the House version puts $20 million toward that goal.

The state’s aging computer systems also will see an influx of federal dollars. Budget documents say the Office of Administration, which oversees the state’s information technology needs, is in line for about $89 million for “digital government transformation,” while the state’s child support system will receive $27 million in upgrades.

The House budget plan also includes $78 million for a new health laboratory in Jefferson City that will be used by multiple state agencies. Also on tap is $104 million for a new crime lab at the Missouri Department of Public Safety.

Higher education facilities in the St. Louis area also will see some of the federal money.

The University of Missouri-St. Louis would get $40 million to begin upgrades of its campus.

Harris-Stowe State University would get $15.5 million to build a new academic building for teaching science, technology and math.

St. Louis Community College is in line for $20 million to build a health sciences center at the Florissant Valley campus.

St. Charles Community College would receive $18 million for a new building.

Posted at 7 p.m. Tuesday, April 5.

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