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Politics, Elections and Government

Parson’s State Of The State Heavy On Jobs And Roads — Even As Medicaid Expansion Looms In Missouri

Missouri Gov. Mike Parson gives his State of the State address on Wednesday in the Senate chamber of the Missouri State Capitol Building in Jefferson City.
Daniel Shular
/
Special To St. Louis Public Radio
Missouri Gov. Mike Parson gives his State of the State address on Wednesday in the Senate chamber of the Missouri State Capitol Building in Jefferson City.

Gov. Mike Parson used his first State of the State address since being overwhelmingly elected to a four-year term to double down on his top priorities of his first years in office — improving job training and state transportation.

Gov. Mike Parson used his first State of the State address since being overwhelmingly elected to a four-year term to double down on his top priorities of his first years in office — improving job training and state transportation.

He also touched on expanding Medicaid under the auspices of the Affordable Care Act, the result of a constitutional amendment that Missouri voters approved last year.

“At some point in our lives, many of us have probably been reminded of the importance of considering the past when making decisions for the future,” Parson said. “This advice seems especially fitting given the challenges we have faced over the past year. Missouri has seen some difficult days in the past 200 years: from the Civil War and the Great Depression, women’s suffrage and civil rights, to the COVID-19 crisis and countless other hardships. But through it all, Missouri has prevailed.”

Yet the speech Wednesday, the first delivered during the COVID-19 pandemic, was markedly different from past addresses. The GOP chief executive delivered the State of the State in the Missouri Senate chamber, after a number of lawmakers have contracted COVID-19 in the past few weeks.

Much of Parson’s address, his third State of the State since becoming governor in 2018, honed in on his desire to enhance workforce development and infrastructure programs. That included calling for $21.8 million to train people at two- and four-year colleges for high-demand jobs.

Parson also said that over the past year, the Missouri Department of Transportation was able to focus on 550 road projects. MoDOT director Patrick McKenna said before the speech that his agency was able to complete more projects in 2020 because there were fewer people on the road.

“I have always said that you can’t emphasize workforce development without infrastructure,” Parson said. “They go hand-in-hand, and we must continue to invest in both in order to succeed. Now more than ever, we must capitalize on Missouri’s strategic location in the center of the nation and build on the opportunity to become a powerful logistics hub not only for the Midwest and the United States, but for all of North America.”

He also spent much of his speech discussing his administration’s efforts to ramp up distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine, something that Missouri, and many other states, have struggled with over the past few weeks. Missouri is last in the country in the percentage of first dose of vaccinations given, according to the CDC.

Parson also detailed a number of ways that the administration has dealt with the coronavirus crisis.

“We have now shipped over 22 million gowns, 18 million gloves, 8 million surgical masks, 5 million N95 masks, and 1 million face shields to front-line health care providers,” Parson said. “We were one of the first states in the nation to submit our COVID-19 vaccine plan … and have now administered nearly 400,000 doses to Missourians. The bottom line is that we have been working day in and day out to fight COVID-19 while also dealing with civil unrest, violent crime and a difficult budget.”

Parson also announced the creation of the Office of Childhood, which would consolidate several programs to enhance early childhood education into one office. Increasing funding for early childhood education has been a major priority for Parson since he took office.

“This new office will not only help streamline the operation of several state programs, but also allow us to place a bigger focus on early childhood development – a critical component to the future success of Missourians for generations to come,” Parson said.

Additionally, Parson reiterated his desire for the Legislature to tax online retailers in a similar manner to how brick-and-mortar stores are taxed. The proposal, widely known as Wayfair after a U.S. Supreme Court case authorizing the practice, has been proposed for a few years — but failed to gain much traction.

"I am a strong supporter of lower taxes – in fact, I have signed several tax cuts into law,” Parson said. “However, our small businesses, especially in smaller communities, are getting crushed right now because they cannot compete with huge online retailers. We must level that playing field and consider ways to responsibly invest those revenues and provide new opportunities for our state.”

Snow blankets the ground before Missouri Governor Mike Parson is scheduled to give his State of the State address on Wednesday, January 27, 2021, at the Missouri State Capitol Building in Jefferson City.
Daniel Shular / Special to St. Louis Public Radio
Snow blankets the ground before Missouri Governor Mike Parson is scheduled to give his State of the State address on Wednesday, January 27, 2021, at the Missouri State Capitol Building in Jefferson City.

Medicaid expansion on the horizon

One of the most significant agenda items mentioned during Parson’s speech was his plan to follow through on a voter-approved constitutional amendment to expand Medicaid.

“Like I have said many times, I will always uphold the will of the voters, and we will move forward with expanding Medicaid coverage to approximately 275,000 Missourians,” Parson said. “However, it is important to remember that the costs of this expansion will be significant – hundreds of millions of dollars, in fact. This will have a major impact on other areas of our budget, and we must plan accordingly. Which means staying vigilant in maintaining the program’s integrity by protecting against fraud and waste.”

Indeed, Parson and other Republican lawmakers have opposed Medicaid expansion for more than 15 years. In fact, Parson, as a member of the Missouri House, voted to drastically cut eligibility for the program when he was a first-year representative. But now that Medicaid expansion is in the constitution, implementing it is no longer optional.

The expansion, which could cost $1.9 billion when including federal funds, would cover an estimated 275,000 people. More than $120 million of that expansion will be covered with state general revenue dollars.

State Budget Director Dan Haug said he’s not expecting cuts in other areas because the federal government is providing more matching funds for Medicaid than in prior years.

“So for this budget, it is not causing some of those crowding-out issues,” he said. “My concern is going forward.”

Other major spending items include $100 million for state facility maintenance and repair, as well as $5 million for rural broadband grants. Parson is also proposing about $68.2 million in bonding for 28 projects at 22 state parks, including electrical and wastewater upgrades, cabin construction and new campgrounds.

Despite the economic downturn caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, Haug said the Missouri budget is actually in pretty good shape. He pointed to how federal COVID-19 funds went to state employee salaries that would have usually used general revenue. And he said that since scores of income tax returns came in after July 1, the state will effectively have two filing deadlines during one fiscal year.

“We’re pretty pleased with how the economy has bounced back compared to where it was in the spring,” Haug said.


COVID-19 moves speech to the Senate


One subplot of Wednesday’s address was the venue. Traditionally the governor delivers the speech to a joint session of the Missouri General Assembly in the House chamber. But it was moved to the Senate chamber on Wednesday afternoon.

A joint statement of House and Senate leaders said that having the speech in the Senate chamber “would ensure attendees can meet CDC guidelines recommending six feet of social distancing.”

“The COVID-19 pandemic has reshaped Missourians’ lives in every possible way — underscoring the need for patience and flexibility at home, at school and at the workplace,” the statement said. “The temporary relocation will maximize safety while still honoring the tradition of an in-person address by the Governor.”

A spokeswoman for Parson said his office was told at 10:30 a.m. that the speech could not be held in the House chamber for “COVID reasons.” A number of lawmakers, including Sen. Andrew Koenig of Manchester, have contracted COVID-19 in recent days.

Senate Minority Leader John Rizzo, an Independence Democrat who is quarantining after coming into contact with someone who tested positive for the virus, said Parson should have conducted the speech virtually — similarly to the way he held press conferences via Facebook Live throughout 2020.

“It’s everything that the CDC tells us not to do — gathering people in large groups,” Rizzo said. “Some people aren’t wearing masks for long periods of time. They’re traveling across the state and then traveling back. None of the ways they’re approaching any of this in regards to how the Capitol is operating is based in any science or data.”

Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum

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