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Missouri House passes a state budget, but Democrats say it underfunds schools

Legislators and guests applaud Gov. Mike Parson on Wednesday at the Capitol.
Brian Munoz
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Legislators and guests applaud Gov. Mike Parson on Wednesday at the Capitol.

Despite passing a more than $46.5 billion budget, the House left about $1.8 billion in general revenue unspent. Senate leaders have indicated they plan to spend at least some of that leftover money.

Missouri’s budget for the upcoming fiscal year is, for now, out of the hands of the House of Representatives.

Members voted out a total of 15 budget bills Thursday, only two days after the chamber spent more than eight hours debating and changing the spending plan before giving it first-round approval.

Of the bills passed, 14 are for next year’s budget, while one is a second supplemental for the remainder of this year. The legislature passed an emergency supplemental budget, which contained raises for state workers as well as nearly $2 billion in federal money for public schools back in March.

Highlights of the budget include more than $10 billion for the state’s K-12 schools, nearly $2.5 billion to fund Missouri’s Medicaid expansion program and enough funding to restore Amtrak’s service from St. Louis to Kansas City to twice a day.

While the House’s version of the budget increased from $46.1 billion to $46.5 billion between Tuesday and Thursday, House Democrats voted against many of the budget bills, saying much more could be spent considering the state currently has record general revenue and billions of federal dollars to spend.

Some of the areas Democrats were advocating for more dollars include both K-12 and higher education, transportation and public health.

Rep. Maggie Nurrenbern, D-Kansas City, who voted against the K-12 budget bill, spoke on how Missouri is underfunding its schools on several fronts, including transportation.

“My no today is because I believe we should be paying one of our most basic obligations of our schools, which is transporting our students safely to and from our schools,” Nurrenbern said. “But what we're doing in this House bill is we are underfunding school transportation by a couple million dollars.”

One of the major differences between Gov. Mike Parson’s proposed budget and the one the House passed was the elimination of a raise to the minimum wage for new teachers. Parson’s plan would have increased it to $38,000 a year.

While the House did allocate more than $35 million for teacher raises, it is instead through a program that would give more money to experienced teachers as opposed to new ones.

Rep. Peter Merideth, D-St. Louis, said talks are happening between the House and Senate to see if the raises for starting teachers can be restored.

“What I don't want to see happen, and I think a lot of them don't want to see happen is, if we don't find the perfect plan, we end up doing nothing. We have to use this money,” Merideth said.

Another area of spending that saw pushback was how to allocate billions in federal dollars through the American Rescue Plan Act. The House budget bill containing that federal funding is currently more than $2.5 billion in cost.

House Budget Chair Cody Smith, R-Carthage, spoke on assertions from lawmakers that the state was either not spending enough or too much of Missouri’s cut of the American Rescue Plan Act.

“It's always been a challenge, and my goal here to try to think this through, to try to invest it in such a way that we can look back on it, and 20 or 30 years and think that we made some really good decisions with this opportunity that we've been given, despite the fact that we have concerns about massive amounts of federal spending,” Smith said.

Rep. Doug Richey, R-Excelsior Springs, supported the decisions made on the budget regarding COVID-19 dollars, including not allocating all of it right away.

“It is fiscal irresponsibility. It is fiscal danger, to operate with the idea that because we have money, that we ought to spend that money,” Richey said.

While Merideth said this is the best and most bipartisan budget he’s seen in his years in the House, ultimately a lot of money was left on the table, and he was frustrated by what felt was a lack of a plan to spend some of this money, especially federal COVID-19 money.

“What we're sending over to the Senate is, ‘We don't know.’ And if you've ever been here and watch the Senate work, they're not going to take that as a cap, they're going to take that as an opportunity, an opportunity to spend that money however they see fit,” Merideth said.

Though the Senate could begin working on the budget as soon as next week, Senate Majority Leader Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, said discussions will likely begin in two weeks instead.

“I think they're going to do just some behind the scenes work with committee members, and just, you know, really wrapping their heads around exactly what's in all this stuff,” Rowden said.

As to changes the Senate will make to the budget, Rowden said the upper chamber tends to be the middleman between what the House allocated and what the governor asks for, but spending all of the remaining $1.8 billion is unlikely.

Meanwhile, Senate Minority Leader John Rizzo, D-Independence, said beyond the priority of raising teacher pay, that unallocated funding is on the table.

“I mean, as far as I look at it, that's about $50 million for 34 Senate districts. And I don't think there's going to be any lack of ideas over here on how to spend that,” Rizzo said.

With only five weeks left in the legislative session, that would leave less than a month for the budget to fully make it through the legislature and the possibility of a special session.

Follow Sarah Kellogg on Twitter: @sarahkkellogg

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Sarah Kellogg
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