Missourians should have good reason to cheer because around $5 billion is now heading the state’s way from the new $1.9 trillion coronavirus rescue package signed by President Joe Biden. In reality, it remains to be seen where that money will go — if it goes anywhere. Gov. Mike Parson seems unprepared to think creatively and proactively no matter how much the extra infusion is needed to get Missourians back on their feet. Parson has yet to disburse at least $820 million out of the federal relief funds the state received nearly a year ago.
Money that can and should go toward helping schools, corrections facilities, public safety agencies and economic development programs cope with pandemic turmoil is, instead, sitting on the table doing nothing. State Auditor Nicole Galloway reported last week that Parson had failed to disburse about $1.4 billion as of Jan. 31.
Parson was among 22 governors who signed a Feb. 27 statement criticizing the new stimulus package, saying that unlike previous funding packages, this one “allocates aid based on a state’s unemployed population rather than its actual population, which punishes states that took a measured approach to the pandemic and entered the crisis with healthy state budgets and strong economies. A state’s ability to keep businesses open and people employed should not be a penalizing factor when distributing funds.”
If Parson hasn’t spent nearly a quarter of the funds already allotted, what’s he complaining about? By the end of December, Missouri’s unemployment rate stood at 5.8%, which was lower than the national average but nowhere close to pre-pandemic levels. New weekly unemployment claims continue on a rollercoaster ride, dipping as low as 7,411 to a peak of 19,099 over the past three weeks.
Missourians clearly are still hurting. Schools still need money to boost students’ home internet connectivity and to better accommodate the demands on teachers as in-person classes resume while some students choose to continue attending remotely. Local jails and the state prison system are woefully behind in instituting measures to better protect inmates and guards from the coronavirus. Previously thriving urban retail centers are now barely holding on. Vacant storefronts are papered over, and restaurants continue to grapple with social distancing requirements that limit their profit potential.
The virus remains a potent threat, with new variants justifying the need to keep precautionary measures in place. The federal money is designed to help people, businesses and governments survive. Yet Parson continues to sit on a mountain of cash that soon will grow even taller with the new stimulus package.
These are not supposed to be funds he can leave tucked away for a rainy day. If Parson plans to continue sitting on the federal cash under his control, he at least owes Missourians a better explanation of why.