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MAKING THE LAW: At a Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce event, state Reps. John Black, left, and Craig Fishel provide insight into their first year as legislators.
SBJ photo by Jessica Rosa
MAKING THE LAW: At a Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce event, state Reps. John Black, left, and Craig Fishel provide insight into their first year as legislators.

Workforce, infrastructure issues gain late-session traction

Legislators also approve MSU, OTC funding requests

Posted online

As the 2019 Missouri legislative session concluded May 17, the last couple of weeks resulted in activity from lawmakers that boosted multiple high-priority workforce development and infrastructure issues.

The week prior to the session’s end, legislators approved a roughly $30 billion operating budget for fiscal 2020. Part of the budget includes $100 million of general revenue for state bridge repairs and local highway projects, as well as $10 million for the Fast Track workforce development grant program. The budget now awaits the signature of Gov. Mike Parson, who proposed the $30 billion budget in January.

“I thought it was an incredibly productive policy session,” said House Speaker Elijah Haahr, R-Springfield, after completing his first session in the leadership role.

He noted 94 bills were truly agreed and passed by the 100th General Assembly to be sent to Parson for signing.

Speaking at a legislative wrap-up session May 23, state Reps. Craig Fishel, R-Springfield, and John Black, R-Marshfield, both expressed optimism about the Fast Track program, which received funding through Senate Bill 68, sponsored by Sen. Lincoln Hough, R-Springfield.

Fast Track is aimed at people ages 25 and older with an average household income of $80,000 or less, or an individual income of $40,000 or less. Full tuition and fees for up to four semesters are covered by Fast Track grants, which are designed to help students get degrees in high-demand fields, such as advanced manufacturing, health care and computer science.

“There’s a lot of people out there who are over 25 years old and under $40,000 income that could use more education to get a good-paying job,” Fishel said. “I hope that makes a difference.”

Black, who serves the 137th District, which includes parts of Greene and Webster counties, was on the Missouri House Budget Committee for his first session as a legislator. Supporting the Parson administration’s initiatives, Black said they were successful but not to the extent the governor wanted in the budget. For example, Parson sought $22.2 million for Fast Track as part of his workforce development plan he announced in January.

“It will have us well positioned to provide excellent skill training to folks,” Black said.

Bridge attention
Much like Fast Track, Fishel said the governor’s original infrastructure request – a $351 million bond package proposal to improve nearly 250 bridges in the state – had to be modified to get passed.

Senate Concurrent Resolution 14 authorizes $301 million in bonds to repair 215 bridges in the Statewide Transportation Improvement Program for 2020-24. However, the bonds are contingent upon federal grant approval for Missouri to replace an Interstate 70 bridge over the Missouri River west of Columbia.

Haahr said the bond package and $50 million from the budget was a positive compromise because the state isn’t borrowing money over a long period of time. Parson’s bond package was expected to take around 15 years to pay off, while bonds issued as part of SCR 14 are payable within seven years.

“I had some concerns about the initial bonding package and the interest rates,” Haahr said, adding the governor’s proposal would have accrued $100 million in interest over the 15 years. “We got to what I consider a true compromise at the end of the day. We had to create this by living within the means we had and we were able to do that.”

However, Fishel, who was named Freshman Legislator of the Year for Advocacy for Local Government, still laments that voters rejected the proposed 10-cent hike to the state’s gas tax in November 2018. He doesn’t envision the issue reappearing on a ballot for a while but believes a long-term funding boost for the state’s roads are still needed.

“At some point, the legislature’s got to step up and come up with a funding formula for roads,” he said. “Borrowing money to build our roads is just kicking the can down the road.”

School money
While a funding formula for roads is an uncertainty, Missouri’s K-12 public schools will be once again fully funded next fiscal year, at a cost of $3.55 billion. That total is approximately $61 million more than the current budget year, Black said.

Higher education also got some significant funding boosts for fiscal 2020.

“Missouri State [University] got some additional funding for its core, which I’m really proud to be on the budget committee and be a part of that,” Black said.

The state budget increase for MSU of $10 million for the next fiscal year will have university leadership planning to reduce a planned tuition increase of 5%, said MSU President Clif Smart.

“That was the most significant thing to happen to the university except for the name change,” Smart said at the chamber’s recent legislative recap. “It was tremendously important to the university and important to morale of the 2,000 people who work at the university. We’re funded now in similar ways of universities in the state.”

In April, the MSU Board of Governors had given preliminary approval to raise tuition in the 2019-20 academic year, according to past Springfield Business Journal reporting. Action on the proposed tuition hike is expected at the next MSU Board of Governors meeting June 21.

Ozarks Technical Community College was also a state budget beneficiary as it received $4.75 million in funding for its Center for Advanced Manufacturing and Technology. OTC Chancellor Hal Higdon said in January the college intends to seek another $5 million for the center in the 2020 legislative session. Additional funding for the proposed $20 million center will be sought by OTC, including private and federal grants, private donations and corporate sponsorships, according to past SBJ reporting.

In addition, the Ozarks Regional Nursing Collaborative, a project between MSU and OTC to help meet the need for nurses in the region, also received one-time funding of $3.1 million.

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