JEFFERSON CITY — A state lawmaker and local officials are “baffled” by Gov. Mike Parson’s decision to slash $300,000 from the state budget for a program designed to fight a surge of child sex abuse in Lincoln County.
Rep. Randy Pietzman, R-Troy, said the budget is flush with cash, meaning cutting the money doesn’t make sense from a fiscal management standpoint.
He said he called the governor’s office before the official action took place last week after hearing the money might be in danger.
“I begged him. I told them the budget is fat with money. We’ve got a problem here and we have a plan to address it,” Pietzman said.
Cheri Winchester, executive director of the Lincoln County Resource Board, which supported Pietzman’s effort to get the money inserted into the spending plan, said she was shocked at Parson’s action.
“I can’t make sense of it just knowing his background as a law enforcement officer, being a father and a grandfather. These are Missouri kids who are being hurt and abused,” Winchester said. “I feel like it’s a sucker punch. I’m still quite baffled. I don’t understand.”
In signing the budget last week, Parson vetoed $155 million from the $35 billion spending blueprint, including the money for a pilot program designed to help children who may be victims of sex offenders in Lincoln County, which is north of St. Charles County on the edge of the St. Louis metropolitan area.
The $300,000 would have paid for additional investigators, an additional prosecutor and support staff to address a growing number of sex offenders who live in the county.
In his veto message, Parson, a Republican who once served as a county sheriff, said the spending was not necessary.
“This item was not part of my budget recommendations. Additionally, it is an earmark for the benefit of a single county,” the governor wrote.
It is not uncommon, however, for the Legislature to insert money into the budget that will benefit a specific city or county.
The budget he signed, for example, includes money for literacy programs in St. Louis and St. Joseph and a Route 66 festival in Springfield.
A Parson spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment.
Pietzman said he believes more sex offenders are coming to Lincoln County because of state laws restricting how close they can live to schools, day cares and parks.
In St. Charles and St. Louis counties, denser populations mean there are fewer places for sex offenders to live.
Winchester said Lincoln County had 681 reported incidents of child abuse and neglect in 2019, a 9.3% increase from 2011.
‘We’ve got to start somewhere’
According to the Missouri Department of Social Services, the number of substantiated cases of abuse and neglect increased to include 6.3 substantiated cases for every 1,000 children, which is the highest rate in the state.
Pietzman said his concerns about children being targeted was one of the main reasons he ran for office.
“We were trying to come up with some sort of a plan. We’ve got to start somewhere,” he said.
Parson’s veto came as the state ended the fiscal year on June 30 with record revenue. The state budget office shows Missouri topped $11.2 billion in net general revenue, which is up by more than 25% over last year and nearly $2 billion over what was collected in 2019.
Individual income taxes, which comprise the largest share of Missouri’s revenue, were up more than 28% in 2021. Sales tax collections were up 6.7%.
Pietzman said he is not sure if he will press his colleagues in the Legislature to reverse the governor’s action when they reconvene in September for their annual veto session.
But he said he thinks he’d be successful if he did.
“I think we can override the veto,” Pietzman said.
In the meantime, Winchester said the next steps for the local effort have not been determined.
But, she added, “We aren’t going to stop or delay our efforts to protect our kids.”
The legislation is House Bill 11.