by Rudi Keller, Missouri Independent
Anti-diversity budget language called a “job killer” by the Missouri Chamber of Commerce didn’t survive the state Senate Appropriations Committee Wednesday, as the panel wrapped up its work on the state spending plan for the coming year.
Over two days of work, the committee added more than $3 billion to the House-approved budget for state operations in the coming fiscal year. The biggest items added Wednesday were $300 million for the Department of Mental Health to build a new psychiatric hospital in Kansas City and $461 million to increase the pay of personal care workers who assist people with developmental disabilities.
The committee also restored $4.5 million for state aid to public libraries, cut in the House because the Missouri Library Association and the ACLU are suing over legislation passed last year intended to block children from accessing sexually explicit material.
The biggest new item overall was $2 billion for widening Interstate 70, added on Tuesday.
The 14 spending bills will be debated in the Senate next week, setting up negotiations with the House to iron out differences before the May 5 deadline for appropriations.
Exact totals were unavailable Wednesday, but the tally will be higher than both the House plan, which spends $45.6 billion on state operations, and the budget proposed by Gov. Mike Parson, which asked for $47.7 billion. The extra money comes from bond debt, increased federal aid and the massive general revenue surplus projected to be at least $5 billion at the end of the current fiscal year.
Among other actions, the committee restored Parson’s proposal to increase pre-kindergarten programs provided by school districts with an added $78 million. Other items added money for higher education initiatives, community drinking- and waste-water programs, tourism grants and lottery advertising.
Senate Appropriations Chairman Lincoln Hough, R-Springfield, said many of the additions were to promote the economic health of the communities targeted for spending. Some of the money, he said, is to complete projects begun with federal COVID-19 recovery grants.
“I want to see us continue to invest in those infrastructure projects that are going to be meaningful for communities,” Hough said. “There are communities all over the place that have industrial parks that just have a little bit of infrastructure that they need to finish out, and they can open up a 100 acre development site.”
Plan would widen I-70 from Wentzville to Blue Springs
The Senate committee began working Tuesday as the Missouri House was giving first-round approval to a set of construction spending bills that included Parson’s proposed $859 million earmarked for I-70.
The governor’s proposal is expected to finance widening the highway in three sections totaling about 55 miles. The plan presented Tuesday by Hough would put an extra lane on about 190 miles of the interstate.
Like Parson’s proposal, it relies heavily on the surplus of more than $5 billion in general revenue as a key source of funding. Hough’s plan would set aside $1.4 billion from general revenue and finance the rest with bonds to be repaid over 15 years.
The House passed an operating budget that proposes spending $45.6 billion, including about $12.6 billion in general revenue. The total is about $2.1 billion less than Parson proposed, but almost $1 billion is because the I-70 plan was shifted into the construction bills.
In many instances, when the House cut or not funded an item proposed by Parson, the Senate committee adopted the original budget. In some cases, such as for state universities, the House spent the same amount as Parson but made some of the money contingent upon future actions. For the universities, that future action was the approval of a performance funding system.
Instead, the Senate committee gave the institutions the 7 percent boost in funding proposed by Parson.
Anti-diversity language has unknown consequences, Hough says
The anti-diversity, equity and inclusion language, added during House floor debate by Rep. Doug Richey to the 13 spending bills for state operations as well as the supplemental appropriations bill for the current year, created large and small headaches for state government. It had the potential to cause delays or cancellations in state contracts and endangered the Medicaid program.
“The uncertainty associated with the language that the House applied to those appropriations bills is unknown,” Hough said. “And I don’t like doing things when we are running a state that I don’t know what the consequences are. That does not seem like a responsible thing to do.”
None of the 14 members of the committee, dominated by Republicans, objected or tried to add language Richey is pushing as a narrower version that would not impact contracting or state services. Asked about the Senate vote, Richey, R-Excelsior Springs, said he will continue to push for some version to make it into the final budget.
In a news release issued Tuesday, the Chamber of Commerce listed Richey’s amendment among four measures under consideration by lawmakers that it contends are job killers.
“Rep. Richey’s language bans state government spending on staff, vendors, consultants and programs associated with diversity, equity and inclusion,” a statement from the chamber read. “If passed, this will bring Missouri’s government to a grinding halt.”
The strong committee vote in favor of budget bills without the language is a signal to the House that the issue is dead in future budget negotiations, Sen. Barbara Washington, D-Kansas City, said. The 14 bills approved in the committee Wednesday were all passed unanimously or with only a single dissenting vote.
The committee, she said, “is astute enough to realize anything of this sort would cost the state billions of dollars.”
Added funding boosts pay for those serving people with disabilities
A $451 million addition to the budget would boost rates paid to local agencies providing residential support services for people with disabilities. The extra funding would allow those agencies, struggling to find staff like many service providers, to set a base pay of $17 an hour.
The Missouri House, during budget debate last month, narrowly defeated an amendment that would have added $308 million to the budget to boost the base pay, currently $15 an hour, by 8.7%.
The committee worked swiftly through the budget bills and Hough spent hours with individual members before this week’s meeting discussing the items they wanted to add.
“We made investments in things that have been put off for a long time in this state,” Hough said.