Parson pitches I-70 improvements and education funding hikes in State of the State address
Updated at 7:10 p.m. Jan. 18 with comments from legislators and state officials
With Missouri flush with cash, Gov. Mike Parson wants the legislature to allocate some of the hefty surplus to widen parts of Interstate 70, expand access to early childhood education and provide a backstop against future cuts to K-12 schools.
Parson also used his State of the State speech Wednesday to push for incentives that could make child care more available and affordable — something the GOP governor said is critical for expanding access to the workforce.
“Missouri is stronger today, and we’re going to continue what we’ve started,” Parson said. “Because this governor isn’t done yet. We are not done yet.”
Among the items in a roughly $57.3 billion budget is $859 million to expand lanes along parts of Interstate 70. State officials say the lane widening will focus on the Kansas City, St. Louis and Columbia portions of the highway.
In the eastern part of the state, the money would go toward expanding the highway from two to three lanes in each direction between Wentzville and Warrenton, said Missouri Department of Transportation Director Patrick McKenna.
“For years, congestion, traffic accidents, and delays have become serious issues for commuters on I-70. Not only are we concerned for motorist safety, these inefficiencies are costly to our state’s economy. And we must invest to improve I-70,” Parson said. “To those who say we can’t afford it, I say we can’t afford not to.”
Funding for the project would come from the state’s general revenue surplus, though state Budget Director Dan Haug said there will also be efforts to acquire federal funding for the project. Parson chief of staff Aaron Willard touted the money for I-70 as a way to strengthen the nation’s supply chains, which have been under stress because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“If you look at the map, Missouri is at the nexus of our U.S. supply chain,” Willard said. “This is an exciting opportunity to do something not only for the communities and the people of the state. This is a chance for us to lead nationally.”
Lt. Gov. Mike Kehoe said that Parson’s proposal was “bold in a good way.”
“The governor's proposal is what Missourians are going to want to hear about how we improve infrastructure, within the confines of our budget, and how that improves safety for our families and economy for our state,” Kehoe said. “It's a win-win.”
Sen. Bill Eigel, R-Weldon Spring, has been advocating for expanding I-70 over the past few months. He said the governor’s proposal was a good starting point.
“And of all the things I heard in the governor's speech about spending money, that was probably the one area where I have some agreement with,” Eigel said. “For me taking care of I-70 is not doing half the job. We got to do all the job.”
House Minority Leader Crystal Quade, D-Springfield, said while her caucus hasn’t discussed the specifics of what an I-70 expansion should look like, they are excited about the plan.
“We know that Missouri being in the center of the country, we are a hub for transportation, and not just in roads, but looking at our rivers and our ports. And so any sort of conversation and an investment in that, to continue to grow our economy we are going to be supportive of,” Quade said.
Early childhood education funding
Parson is also proposing about $56 million to expand access to early childhood education programs. Under the proposal, the money would help pay for 4-year-olds who receive free or reduced-price lunches to attend pre-K programs at public and charter schools. The governor’s office predicts it will provide access to early childhood education programs for roughly 17,000 people throughout the state.
“There is a clear need to do better when it comes to early childhood,” Parson said. “Let’s meet this moment for Missouri kids, families and businesses.”
Additionally, Parson wants to create three tax credits aimed at bolstering the state’s child care infrastructure. That’s in addition to bumping up the amount of subsidies given to the state’s child care providers by about $78 million.
“These programs will help improve child care facilities, support employers who support their workers with child care assistance and allow more of our dedicated child care workers to earn a pay increase,” Parson said.
Quade said she was grateful to hear Parson prioritize child care but would prefer his proposed programs apply to more people.
“With the amount of money that we're talking about, I would love to see that expanded to every kid. It's wonderful that we're prioritizing low-income kids, but every child needs that first fresh start,” Quade said.
Parson also wants to place $250 million in an account intended to prevent future cuts to K-12 schools. He is also proposing fully funding K-12 transportation at a cost of $233.4 million.
“This year, we will again fully fund the foundation formula with an additional $117 million to ensure Missouri schools are receiving the support they need,” Parson said.
If the legislature approves, this will be the second year in a row that Missouri will fully fund its share of school transportation costs after not doing so for more than 20 years.
Quade said that she is thrilled about fully funding school transportation and that some school districts moving to a four-day school week could be a factor as to why this funding shift is happening.
“I think that's a big piece of it, right? We have heard from our education providers, and our teachers, administrators, all sides of that conversation, that they don't have enough money to keep the doors open, to keep staff in, to be able to pay them living wages and to be able to want folks to come into their communities,” Quade said.
In addition to the school transportation proposal, Parson is calling for adding $31.9 million toward the existing Career Ladder program, which provides raises to experienced teachers who put in extra work.
Quade said while Career Ladder was something Democrats supported when it was put in the budget last year, it’s still a starting point.
“That is not the solution to teacher pay. As we all know, we are one of the lowest in the entire country. We've got to do more than just that,” Quade said.
After noting that the shooting at Central Visual & Performing Arts High School in St. Louis was “nothing short of tragedy,” Parson pitched $50 million for school safety.
“We want to ensure that preparedness and response can be repeated across our state if the unthinkable ever occurs again,” Parson said.
For higher education institutions, Parson is proposing roughly a $70.8 million increase. He’s also seeking $275 million for higher education capital improvement projects as well as $234.2 million for improving state facilities.
State employee pay raises
Parson wants to commit $273.6 million for state employee pay raises, something he said is crucial for making sure state services are carried out effectively.
“For anyone who can’t already see the dire need for this action, we want to be clear, this is not state government setting the market,” Parson said. “This is merely an attempt by state government to stay competitive with the market. If we allow state government to fall behind, we allow Missourians to fall behind.”
Haug said that the state should still have around $4 billion in the bank after this year’s budget. He said the goal is to not spend the state’s surplus at once.
Mixed reception from Republicans
During the speech, members of both parties gave a rousing standing ovation to Parson’s desire to expand parts of I-70. There was less enthusiasm among Republicans, though, to expand child care and early childhood education.
Eigel said he saw Parson’s speech as a continued expansion of state government since he joined the Senate in 2017.
“Of all the things that we've done over the past six years while I've been in the Senate, expanding the budget, and expanding government, unfortunately, has been one of the most aggressive things we've done,” Eigel said.
He said there could be opposition among Republicans to spending money on expanding access to child care and early childhood education.
“There are a lot of priorities that I'd like to see moved in the realm of education,” Eigel said. “But I don't know if expanding government run schools to an earlier age is necessarily the answer to getting better outcomes.”
Others, though, felt that focusing on child care and early childhood education was aligned with Parson’s desire to expand workforce development.
“We have a really big workforce problem, and a lot of that can be tied to people needing to take care of their kids,” said state Auditor Scott Fitzpatrick. “There's an opportunity for them to start getting educated at an earlier age that creates more opportunities for workforce development.”
Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft said he wasn’t surprised there was a lot of agreement between Republicans and Democrats on many of Parson’s proposals.
“It's always easier when there's a lot of money to be shared,” Ashcroft said. “Everybody’s going to claim a win from this. What I think will really happen though, at the end of the year, I think we'll see the legislature that's wisely stewarding the people's money.”
Democrats had a lot to applaud
Multiple times during Parson’s speech, Democrats were the first to stand up on some of the governor’s proposed budget items, including child care, education funding and addressing Missouri’s maternal mortality rate.
Quade said she is happy with the starting point Parson has laid out.
“I think this is the most that we've ever stood up for a state of the state because quite truthfully, I feel like he took a lot of the budget priorities that we've been fighting for, for so long, and wrote the budget with it,” Quade said.
She said she believes some of that shift is due to the overturning of Roe v. Wade and many constituents’ frustrations with it.
“We're seeing our colleagues on the other side of the aisle, swoop around with more family support programs and actually help with pregnancy and help with the care of children afterwards,” Quade said.
As to the likelihood of the Republican supermajority going along with Parson’s recommendations, Quade said she hopes the General Assembly takes note of what he has outlined.