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Fast Track funds approved in Sen. Hough’s bill

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In the last week of the 2019 state legislative session, Gov. Mike Parson achieved one of his top priorities to fund the Fast Track grant program.

The Senate passed Bill 68, sponsored by Sen. Lincoln Hough, R-Springfield, May 14, just three days before the legislature adjourned for the session. The workforce development bill is threefold: It establishes Fast Track with $10 million in funding; modifies provisions of the state Department of Economic Development’s Missouri Works training program, renaming it Missouri One Start; and gives incentives to General Motors Co. (NYSE: GM) for an expansion of its Wentzville plant.

Days prior to the Senate vote, the House of Representatives passed the measure 92-51. 

“That’s a strong showing of support, in my opinion,” Hough said of the bipartisan vote. “This is a comprehensive economic development and workforce development package that we’ve never had before in the state.”

The Fast Track workforce incentive program targets individuals ages 25 and older with an average household income of $80,000 or less.

The grants aim to help nontraditional students get degrees in high-demand fields, such as computer science, health care and advanced manufacturing. Full tuition and fees for up to four semesters are covered by the grants.

Missouri Higher Education Commissioner Zora Mulligan said at a February workforce roundtable in Springfield that the estimated reach for Fast Track is 16,000 students. In addition, she said the program’s financial impact could be significant, as people who make $30,000-$40,000 a year potentially could have pay reach $50,000-$60,000 after earning a certificate through Fast Track.

The day after the legislation’s passage, Parson issued a statement, calling Senate Bill 68 “a complete victory for Missourians and jobs in every corner of the state.”

He thanked Hough and other legislators for their involvement.

“We are sending a powerful message to the nation that we are ready to compete with every state for more jobs,” Parson said in a news release, adding “we now have the necessary economic development tools to make an important investment in the skills of Missouri workers.”

The GM filibuster
The bill’s passage was not without a struggle, as a more than 27-hour filibuster delayed a vote. The filibuster was largely surrounding tax incentives for GM, which opponents argued against.

Under the bill, GM is eligible to receive up to $50 million in tax credits over 10 years if it invests $750 million to expand its plant in Wentzville.

Matt Morrow, president of the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce, said the GM project is important for the state, as the tax breaks could attract other companies to make large investments in Missouri.

“It gives the state a little more competitiveness when it comes to workforce development and economic development,” he said.

The upfront tax breaks for businesses operate as a very conservative deal-closing fund, he added. 

Morrow was concerned the filibuster could have derailed plans for a vote on the bill as the session neared its conclusion. 

“Ultimately, I’m glad this is where we ended,” he said. “When it was allowed to come to a vote, there was overwhelmingly bipartisan support.”

Parson, who promoted Fast Track during February visit to Springfield for workforce roundtable, was seeking $22.2 million for the program. However, through the legislative process, funding was budgeted at $10 million for fiscal 2020, said Hough, who is vice chairman of the Senate’s Appropriations Committee. Fast Track is not capped at $10 million, he added.

“If it needs to be adjusted, we can do that,” he said.

‘Prove its value’
A three-year sunset for the grant program also was included in the bill language. 

“Since it is new, we wanted to try it out and see how much it gets utilized,” Hough said, adding the sunset was a compromise reached during debate on the issue. “My hope is that it does work and we’ll see upward mobility with the program. But this does give us a chance to look back at it.”

Morrow said he doesn’t see the sunset as a negative. Rather, it builds in checks and balances into the new program that didn’t previously exist.

“Essentially, it starts to act as a pilot program,” he said. “We get to evaluate its effectiveness over the course of a three-year period.” 

It may not be possible to demonstrate in three years that participants are established in a new career path through the program, Morrow said.

However, during that time period people can begin to use Fast Track to get skilled up in high-demand fields in which the state needs to be competitive.

“In order to do that, it needs to prove its value,” he said, noting the onus is on the state’s Department of Higher Education and program participants.

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