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Missouri lawmakers OK election year budget with tax rebates, money for construction

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The Missouri capitol

A Capitol employee passes the Governor's office on the second floor of the Missouri capitol building on Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2018, beneath a mural by Sir Frank Brangwyn, an Anglo-Welsh artist, which covers the ceiling of the rotunda in Jefferson City. Photo by Christian Gooden, cgooden@post-dispatch.com

JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri lawmakers put the finishing touches on a $49 billion spending plan Friday giving themselves plenty of ribbons to cut and election-year goodies to dole out.

The budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1 includes pay raises for low-paid teachers and rebate checks up to $500 for taxpayers thanks to an influx of tax revenue and federal pandemic aid.

The 19-bill budget package now heads to Gov. Mike Parson’s desk, giving the House and Senate one week to finalize other top priorities before heading out on the 2022 campaign trail.

Rep. Peter Merideth, D-St. Louis, who serves as the ranking minority member of the House Budget Committee, said Friday marked the first time he didn’t vote against all of the budget bills.

“This is by far the best budget the state has seen that I am aware of,” Merideth said. “There are some really great investments in here.”

After years of urging restraint and saying items like Medicaid expansion were too expensive to fully fund, the Republican-led Legislature found itself staring down a massive pile of money this year as the state pulls itself out of the coronavirus pandemic.

The money continues to flow in beyond expectations. Through April, net general revenue collections were up 9.4% compared with a year ago.

In fact, House Budget Committee Chairman Cody Smith, R-Carthage, said even with the tax rebate plan, the state will still have $1 billion left unspent in its general checkbook at this time next year.

Some hard-line Republicans decried the spending plan as bloated.

“Today, small government ended in Missouri,” said Rep. Brian Seitz, R-Branson. “I voted against this disastrous spending and will continue to be vocal in my support of less spending, smaller government, fiscal responsibility and a budget that reflects the will of the people. This budget is not that.”

Sen. Denny Hoskins, R-Warrensburg, warned that big spending this year could lead to budget cutting next year.

“We’ll have to make some tough decisions next year and beyond,” Hoskins said.

Under the plan, teacher salaries would rise to a base level of $38,000 annually from a national low rate of $25,000. The cost: $37 million.

School districts also will get an infusion of $214 million to cover a portion of busing costs, marking the first time in 30 years the state has fully funded its share of the program.

The additional funding for schools is aimed at addressing staffing shortages that have led to almost one-fourth of the state’s school districts going to four-day school weeks.

“This is a major, unprecedented investment in public education,” Smith said.

Big-ticket items like the state’s Medicaid program are fully funded under the plan. The cost to fund the voter-approved expansion of the MO HealthNet program is pegged at $2.5 billion.

Nursing homes will get $200 million as the state increases the rates it pays to the facilities to care for low-income Missourians.

Higher education also scored added dollars for both operating costs and construction projects. They included $5 million for a program designed to train high school students to one day work at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, which is relocating its campus to a site north of downtown St. Louis.

Lawmakers earmarked $100 million to repair and upgrade rural roads as part of a request from Parson. Cities also could tap into a $75 million cost-sharing program for road and bridge construction projects.

The Jefferson County Port Authority would receive $25 million to expand its port, which is being eyed for a container shipping terminal.

Negotiators also budgeted $2.4 million to restore Amtrak service between St. Louis and Kansas City to two round trips per day.

Rep. Rasheen Aldridge, D-St. Louis, hailed the restoration of the passenger rail service frequency.

“Transportation is really critical in this state,” Aldridge said.

Not all of the budget includes money to build things. In the Department of Public Safety budget, lawmakers set aside $3.2 million to pay for the demolition of abandoned, city-owned houses in St. Louis in a bid to fight blight.

The budget also sets aside $49.5 million to pay for a settlement with correctional officers, who successfully sued to force the Department of Corrections to pay overtime costs. The original jury award was more than double that amount.

“That is something that has been looming over the budget for several years,” Smith said.

Lawmakers agreed to fund $500 million to shore up the Missouri State Employees Retirement System.

“I think that’s one of the best uses of the money we have,” Smith said.

Missouri’s state-operated nursing homes for military veterans will receive enough funding to fully reopen after spending the last year operating at a limited capacity because of a shortage of nurses and staff. That was good news to Sen. Jill Schupp, D-Creve Coeur.

“Our veterans’ homes are going through some tough times. Their population is less than what it should be because they don’t have the staff, and they can’t bring in more veterans to be served. And it’s a vicious cycle because we can’t draw down federal dollars if we don’t have a system in place. And all of these things are not going away right now. So this I think will help move us forward,” Schupp said.

At the Department of Mental Health, the budget includes more than $16 million for a mental health hotline program similar to the 911 hotline for emergency calls.

One of the few losers in the budgeting process was Attorney General Eric Schmitt, who failed to get $500,000 to hire five attorneys in the solicitor general unit. The decision was a bipartisan rebuke for Schmitt’s aggressive series of lawsuits against school districts over their mask rules.

Lawmakers also approved a $3 billion budget for construction projects and other individual initiatives using federal American Rescue Plan Act funds.

That plan includes $6 million to tear down the dormant Jamestown Mall and another $23 million for a new law enforcement center in St. Louis County. Both projects were pushed by Sen. Brian Williams, D-University City.

The Senate inserted $2 million for a sports complex in Chesterfield and $2.5 million to upgrade the Amtrak station in Kirkwood.

But the plan also removes $70 million funding to begin building the cross-state Rock Island pedestrian and bicycling trail.

The University of Missouri-St. Louis campus is in line for a makeover. The budget sets aside $40 million in matching funds for a so-called “Campus of the Future” involving multiple new buildings and demolition of old facilities.

House members complained that they had little say in the laundry list of projects inserted by the Senate.

“This particular budget bill is just pork,” said Rep. Jim Murphy, a south St. Louis County Republican.

The rebate plan would send up to $500 rebates to taxpayers earning up to $150,000 annually. The cost of the program is capped at $500 million, meaning the total amount sent to individuals could be less.

“That makes a difference in the pocketbooks of Missourians,” said Rep. Phil Christofanelli, R-St. Peters.

Kurt Erickson • 573-556-6181

@KurtEricksonPD on Twitter

kerickson@post-dispatch.com

‘This is by far the best budget the state has seen that I am aware of. There are some really great investments in here.’

Rep. Peter Merideth, D-St. Louis

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