JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Gov. Mike Parson wants to spend some of the state’s multi-billion-dollar surplus to widen parts of Interstates 70, but the Senate’s budget chair is proposing to add an extra lane throughout the entire state.
Parson’s request was to expand I-70 in the suburban areas of St. Louis, Kansas City and Columbia, costing $860 million. At a time when the state is flush with cash, Republican Sen. Lincoln Hough says Missouri should be investing.
“If we’re going to spend almost a billion dollars in the governor’s request, why don’t we package this in a way that actually gets this project completely done,” Hough said.
What was proposed as a major project could get even bigger. After the House passed the $45.6 billion operating budget for next fiscal year, the spending plan is now in the hands of the Senate, where the Springfield senator is in charge of the appropriations committee.
“We’re working with MoDOT [Missouri Department of Transportation] and the Office of Administration, packaging a deal that would complete the whole project, hopefully over the next five to seven years,” Hough said.
He also wants to make sure Interstate 44 is teed up to receive improvements after the I-70 project is completed.
“The goal will be as I-70 is being constructed, rebuilt, we can simultaneously do the environmental study work that has to be done on I-44 which generally takes a few years and roughly $20 million,” Hough said. “So, if the state was in a position to start working on I-44 upon completion of I-70, that’s something we can do.”
Another proposal Hough wants to focus on is teachers, by removing the district’s 30% responsibility to bring teacher pay up to $38,000. Last year, the General Assembly approved a baseline salary grant to increase starting teacher pay from $25,000 to $38,000, but the district would have to pay 30% while the state paid the rest. This year, the governor is once again requesting the money for the grant, but Hough doesn’t want to put that cost on the district when the state is flush with cash.
“The feedback we got from districts was that they wanted to utilize the grant but often couldn’t come up with the matching portion,” Hough said. “Under the department’s request [Department of Elementary and Secondary Education] there’s a $7 million line that would essentially make those grants whole to remove the responsibility from those districts.”
The state has roughly a $6 billion surplus, which Hough says makes the budget process more complicated.
“It’s a balancing act between the projects that are going to pay off long-term for our state and then, quite frankly, you can’t do everything,” Hough said. “You want to invest in communities, you want to invest in infrastructure, you want to do these things, but it’s a balancing act.”
During debate in the House, representatives also removed $4.5 million in state aid for libraries. House Budget Chairman Cody Smith, R-Carthage, cited a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri (ACLU) on behalf of the Missouri Library Association and the Missouri Association of School Librarians after a state law passed last year banning sexually explicit material from schools.
“I don’t want to see us cut something like that, I think that is a tremendous benefit to our communities,” Hough said. “Libraries aren’t just books, libraries are career centers, they are internet access for folks back at home that maybe don’t have those capabilities in their own home.”
The Senate is also discussing removing the language prohibiting departments from being associated with diversity, equity and inclusion. The language added throughout the budget by House Republicans would prohibit government from paying for staff, vendors, or consultants “associated with diversity, equity and inclusion.” The amendment would also ban the state from spending money on programs that promote, “preferential treatment of any individual or group of individuals based upon race, color, religion, sex, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, national origin, or ancestry; the concept that disparities are necessarily tied to oppression; collective guilt ideologies; intersectional or divisive identity activism; or limiting of freedom of conscience, thought or speech.”
“Businesses have said diversity is an asset,” Senate Minority Leader John Rizzo, D-Independence, said. “The vendors and contracts that we have if that language were in there would cost us countless jobs.”
Hough said he doesn’t believe that provision will be coming out of the appropriations committee next week.
“There is a very real concern that the language the House attached would disallow the state from working with vendors, working with contracts in any number of capacities,” Hough said. “You’ve got folks in transportation, folks in health, mental health and our corrections centers. It’s problematic to say the least.”
Last month, the House approved another round of tax cuts. This comes after lawmakers passed the largest tax cut in state history during a special session in the fall. During the special session in October, lawmakers approved to drop the state’s income tax rate from 5.3% to 4.95%, with four addition cuts, to 4.5%. The House’s bill, which barely passed the chamber, would drop the rate down immediately to 4.5% and then, with additional cuts, take it down to 4.05% if certain revenue growth is met.
The legislation, which is now in the hands of the Senate, would also lower the state’s 4% corporate income tax rate down to 2% starting in 2024. Then, beginning in 2025, the rate would drop to 1% if the state hits a certain revenue threshold with the goal of eliminating the tax all together in the future.
“My opinion is, I don’t like that approach,” Hough said. “I think if you’re going to do something, you should do it for everyone, like we did last year. I would like to see those tax cuts that we did last fall implicated over the next several years and then see where our economy is and where the investments are at. The unfortunate thing here is that due to term limits in Missouri, everyone thinks they are running for something else and they are running for the next office, so they need to pay they passed the largest tax cut in the history of the universe and I don’t think that’s always good for the citizens that we all serve.”
During a quick House Budget Committee hearing Tuesday, Smith unveiled his list of major construction projects for the state, which includes the governor’s $859 million request to update I-70. Smith took out the money for the project during debate on the operating budget, saying he wants to include it in the legislation for construction projects. It also includes $48 million for projects on I-44. The budget committee will meet Thursday to start with markup on the bill containing the brick-and-mortar projects.
Hough said Wednesday, he would much rather keep the money for the I-70 project in MoDOT’s budget, saying that department will be the ones handling the contracts.
The Senate Appropriations Committee will start holding hearings next week. The General Assembly has a constitutional duty to get the budget to the governor’s desk by May 5. Hough said lawmakers are in a good place to get that job done.