JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — The Missouri House spent the majority of Tuesday rearranging the puzzle pieces that make up the state’s nearly $30 billion budget for the 2020 fiscal year.
During the perfection process, lawmakers traded ideas on the funding levels of programs and different services offered by the state. The House gave initial approval to all 13 bills after more than six hours of discussion and alterations.
This is Rep. Cody Smith’s first budget at the helm of the budget committee.
As debate hit the six-hour mark, Rep. David Wood urged his colleagues to pay attention, be engaged, and really understand the tough decisions that need to be made.
“I implore you to look at the budgets and look at these people and know that is it a tough decision. And it is a tougher decision when you have to make it,” said Wood, who sits on the budget committee.
By the end of the day, the House had made many decisions with an operating budget of $29.7 billion — $10.1 million from general revenue, $9.9 million from federal funds, and $9.7 million from other funds — and increasing liability around the board. Compared to FY 2019, fully funding the K-12 education formula alone required an increased $62 million, and MO HealthNet needed an additional $500 million.
One of the most notable components to the perfected budget was $100 million in general revenue funding allotted for road and bridge repairs. That proposal, unveiled in mid-March by Smith, counters a recommendation by Gov. Mike Parson for a $351 million bond to be paid out over 15 years.
The prospect of using revenue resources outside of the dedicated fund to fix roads and bridges ignited debate when Democrats proposed using the funds elsewhere.
Members of the super-minority party presented an array of amendments that would have decreased the amount of general revenue transferred to the state road fund and increased funding in other areas. The areas that would have seen a funding bump — had the amendments not have failed — were public defenders, developmental disabilities, and libraries.
Since the inception of the dedicated road fund, general revenue has not gone to fund transportation infrastructure, Rep. Jon Carpenter pointed out. He argued that when the body allocates $100 million of general revenue funding to transportation, it is making a value judgment not to spend it on other virtual state services.
Not only that, but the Missouri Department of Revenue needs to know what funding will be coming their way in the future so that they can plan long-term projects, Rep. Greg Razer said.
“$100 million whims is not guaranteed each and every years,” said Razer. “We are taking this money and are paving our roads on the backs of higher education.”
Smith rejected the idea that transportation was taking a higher priority than education. Smith said that funding for K-12 education is at record levels, including fully funding the education formula at $3.55 billion, increasing school transportation funding by $5 million to $108 million, and increasing funding for early childhood special education programs by $3 million to $195 million.
But Democrats argued that even with the additional $5 million, the legislature was still underfunding school transportation by millions of dollars.
“If you adjust for inflation and per-student costs, we are not spending record amounts on our schools,” said Rep. Peter Merideth.
With the backing of leadership, Smith defended the general revenue allocation and argued that just because the move has not been done before does not mean it is not a good idea.
Smith said doing the same thing will get the same results, and the conditions of Missouri’s roads and bridges need a fix. With citizens rejecting a gas tax increase, and opposition to going into debt, a pay-as-you-go approach was a valid proposal.
“It is a new idea, it is a new approach, but we are in need of new ideas and new approaches,” said Smith. “Approach to not raise taxes and not go into debt. And the icing on the cake is that we can save $100 million in interest as we go.”
A majority of the amendments put forward over the course of the day were shot down by the Republican-controlled body.
Lawmakers rejected an amendment preventing state dollars from funding facilities that shackle prisoners while in the midst of labor, an amendment allowing undocumented college students to pay in-state tuition, an amendment allowing law enforcement to use state funds for DUI checkpoints, and an amendment ending the death penalty.
Also rejected were amendments removing language prohibiting Medicaid expansion and language prohibiting tools roads.
Additionally, Republicans shot down proposals that would have decreased funding — ranging from $2.5 million to $10 million — for the Fast-Track Grant Incentive program.
Part of the funding for Fast-Track, one of Parson’s priorities, was shifted away from general revenue. Instead, a portion of the allocated $18 million will come from the Lottery Proceeds Fund. The general revenue freed up by that move went to fund other areas such as $4 million for increased jail reimbursements from the Department of Corrections, a $2 million increase to the University of Missouri Precision Medicine Initiative, a $500,000 increase to account for benefit costs associated with state employee pay raises, and $2.5 million for rural broadband funding increase.
The House did cut budget line items for dozens of full-time employees across departments for positions that had been vacant since at least 2016.
Lawmakers also scaled back funding for several programs to amounts closer to the departments’ requests. For instance, the budget committee had put $1 million to a school safety grant whereas the department only requested $300,000. After talking with the department, it was determined that “$1 million was too much, too soon.”
Funding for some programs was restored through the perfection process. Some core funding that was inadvertently removed in committee was restored for the Department of Revenue.
Alisha Shurr is a reporter for the Missouri Times and Missouri Times Magazine. She joined the Missouri Times in January 2018 after working as a copy editor for her hometown newspaper in Southern Oregon. Alisha is a graduate of Kansas State University. Contact Alisha at firstname.lastname@example.org.