JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – Good news for Missourians who were overpaid unemployment benefits. You might not have to pay them back. State lawmakers in charge of finding a compromise for the budget plan have agreed to pick up the cost if legislation is passed.
Both chambers passed a budget in April but did not agree on the legislation, which sent them to conference. The Budget Conference Committee met for seven hours Wednesday to discuss a dozen budget bills. The Senate’s version of the budget included the state paying for the overpaid unemployment benefits, but the House initially didn’t agree.
“I have concerns, yet I also acknowledge that it seems to be the clear will of the General Assembly to react to this situation,” House Budget Committee Chair Rep. Cody Smith (R-Carthage) said.
During the pandemic, the Missouri Department of Labor said 46,000 Missourians were overpaid. According to the department, the average Missourian owes $4,000, totaling around $150 million.
“If we move forward with this position, it could be used as the tip of the cap,” Rep. Dirk Deaton (R-Noel) said. “I think that it’s problematic on a few different levels.”
Currently there is legislation sitting in the Senate waiting for approval to waive the federal portion. Earlier this week, Senators brought up House Bill 1083 and added an amendment to also waive the state portion, but then later tabled the bill.
Committee members decided to use $48 million of CARES Act funding to pay for the state’s portion of overpaid unemployment benefits as long as legislation is passed.
Another major topic during the conference, the number of Amtrak trains that run across Missouri each day.
“Year after year the state has been obligated for this program,” Deaton said. “We’ve been indebted without our consent.”
Since the pandemic, the train only has one train that travels from St. Louis to Kansas City and back each day. Outside of COVID, it’s two a day. The recommendation during the meeting was to permanently have only one train a day because of the debt the program is costing the state.
“There are some other issues with the fact that the trains not being on time because of flooding and because of COVID and people not using them,” Rep. Sara Walsch (R-Ashland) said.
Smith said it would cost the state around $10 million to keep the two trips running for the next fiscal year.
“We’ve discussed we either need to limit it to one train per day so we are appropriating at enough not to accumulate an arrearage which what we pay interest on this arrearage, it’s kind of taking on debt as a state,” Smith said.
He said Amtrak is being mismanaged in the state, but others on the committee are concerned about what would happen if the number of Missouri River Runner trains would be reduced.
“If we only have one train that runs literally across this state, it is going to put people who use access to public transit in a very difficult spot,” Rep. Rasheed Aldridge (D-St. Louis) said.
Sen. Greg Razer (D-Kansas City) offered an idea to the committee to change the language to remove the word “once” because he believes there is federal money coming from Washington, DC to pay for transportation.
“If we don’t do that, now we are telling Missourians that Amtrak is less reliable of a source to get from point A to point B,” Razer said.
The committee decided to remove that language, to keep Amtrak moving as it is now, as long as the state does not incur any more debt.
Other line items discussed during the hearing:
- $20 million from coronavirus relief funds to meat processing and facilities and development
- $700,000 of general revenue to hemp fiber producer startups
- $10,000 of general revenue to community colleges across the state
- $143 million in homeowners’ assistance
- $1 million for the state’s witness protection program
- The budget also includes funding to hire 53 public defenders for the state to clear the state’s backlog
Gov. Mike Parson’s request for lawmakers to fund Medicaid expansion did not come up during the lengthy discussion. Parson has until July 1 to decide if Mo HealthNet (Missouri’s Medicaid program) will accept the Missourians who are now constitutionally eligible into the program. Expansion was estimated to cost $1.9 billion with less than $130 million coming from the state.
The bills now go back to each chamber to be approved before legislators have to have the budget to the governor by Friday. Session ends May 17.