Editor's note: This report was written by University of Missouri School of Journalism students and editors for publication by Missouri Press Association members.
On a nearly deserted floor, the Missouri House of Representatives yesterday approved a $6.2 billion spending plan focused on COVID-19 relief through the end of June.
About $5.5 billion of that is federal funds, less than half of which have been promised to the state so far. Lawmakers expect it to start arriving later this month. They planned for billions extra in hopes of receiving more federal money.
“It’s one of the most important supplemental bills we’ve seen in the history of Missouri,” Rep. Kip Kendrick, D-Columbia, said.
If all of the hoped-for federal money arrives, the relief package will include:
• $1.5 billion for state agencies to use for immediate COVID-19 aid and relief efforts;
• $1 billion for local governments to use for pandemic response efforts;
• $300 million for public schools;
• $138.7 million for the University of Missouri System; and
• $20 million in financial assistance for child care providers.
The finalized budget increased dramatically from a proposition put forward only three weeks before. In the last House session, lawmakers debated a $413 million proposal.
The spending package passed the House and Senate with strong bipartisan support. It's now headed to Gov. Mike Parson's office.
“The people across the state who are in need of relief don’t care about our partisan politics and the political divide,” said Rep. Cody Smith, a Republican from Carthage and the House Budget Committee chairman. “Many have lost loved ones, lost jobs, are suffering repercussions they’ll be dealing with for years.”
Increased executive discretion
Some lawmakers expressed concern that the supplemental bill gives too much discretion to Parson in terms of how to spend funds over the next three months before the end of the fiscal year.
Sen. Bill Eigel, R-St. Charles, was one senator with concerns about the latitude afforded to the governor.
“The bill before us has a lot of uncertainty in it right now because we don't know exactly how much we expect to get from the federal government,” Eigel said. “We don't know exactly when that's going to come in. And the governor's request is asking for essentially a lot of leeway in how to manage those funds in the event that they come in.”
Sen. John Rizzo, D-Kansas City, acknowledged the Senate was intentionally appropriating more funds in anticipation of additional federal funding, and he said the legislature is putting a lot of faith in Parson by giving him ample flexibility to manage the COVID-19 pandemic.
“He does have more discretion than I think is normal, but we're not in normal circumstances,” Rizzo said.
Senators made it clear that while they accepted authorizing the governor’s ability to allocate large amounts of funding in the short term, the same would not be agreed upon long term.
Sen. Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, said he expects large amounts of the funding that was agreed upon in the supplemental bill to be carried over to the fiscal 2021 budget, where the legislative branch will have far more discretion over spending choices than the executive. The new budget year begins July 1.
“We provided a tremendous amount of latitude as it relates to the short term,” Rowden said, but he cautioned that the long-term conversation about where the money gets spent would look different.
Rowden said it is unlikely the Parson administration will be able to spend several billion dollars in the next three months, which will leave some of that money for the legislature to allocate in the 2021 budget discussions.
“So, I think there's a good amount of that money that ends up getting reappropriated into the fiscal year '21 budget,” Rowden said. “And I think that that really becomes kind of where the more robust conversation happens.”
Madison Czopek, Emily Wolf, Jordan Meier and Maria Benevento contributed to this report.
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