Missouri lawmakers approve multi-billion dollar virus bill

JEFFERSON CITY (AP) — Missouri state lawmakers gave Gov. Mike Parson, a Republican, sweeping authority on Wednesday to spend billions of dollars in federal stimulus money as the state tries to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

House and Senate members, some wearing protective face masks, returned to a Capitol on lockdown since March 24 to pass the bill Wednesday. Parson said he’d sign the bill as soon as possible.

The money for medical supplies, local governments, nursing homes and other aid will cover only the state’s current fiscal year, which ends in June.

More than $1 billion in federal funding is expected to go toward reimbursing local governments for virus-related expenses. Another $300 million would go to K-12 schools, and $200 million would go to colleges and universities.

Nursing homes could get $90 million in extra federal funding to help maintain staffing and prevent outbreaks. Other plans for the federal funding include using $20 million to keep child care providers in business now that schools are closed and many parents have either lost their jobs or are working from home.

Only $4.5 million is slated for rural hospitals.

Parson’s administration asked for the authority to spend much more than that: roughly $4.8 billion in federal funding in response to the pandemic. At least $1.8 billion of that hasn’t been promised by Congress yet.

State Budget Director Dan Haug said the purpose was to pad Parson’s spending authority in case more federal funding becomes available so that lawmakers wouldn’t need to return to the Capitol.

Lawmakers placed few restrictions on Parson’s ability to spend the federal money.

For example, the budget provides for a total of more than $1.5 billion in state and federal funding to be spent at “any state agency responding during a declared emergency at the direction of the governor provided the services furnish immediate aid and relief.”

That rankled members of the Senate’s Conservative Caucus, who raised concern about giving Parson such broad spending authority.

“We want to make sure that we’re ready to accept this,” Sen. Denny Hoskins, R-Warrensburg, said of federal funding. “Unfortunately, that guidance from the federal government, much of it has not been issued. And so we are placing a lot of trust and faith in our governor.”

Rep. Tommie Pierson Jr., D-St. Louis, called on Parson’s administration to take racial disparities into account as the money comes in, saying it would be “tragic” if that was ignored.

Missouri so far has not publicly reported racial data on coronavirus cases and deaths in the state. But of the victims whose demographic data was publicly shared by officials across the U.S. — nearly 3,300 of the nation’s 13,000 deaths thus far — about 42 percent were black, according to an AP analysis. African-Americans account for roughly 21 percent of the total population in the areas covered the analysis.

Lawmakers took unprecedented social distancing precautions as they conducted business.

Speaker Elijah Haahr, a Republican, led a nearly empty House with a voice muffled by a face mask. House lawmakers tried to allow a maximum of 10 people in the 163-member chamber at any one time.

“Today, business was anything but usual,” Sen. John Rizzo, D-Kansas City, commented.

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