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Scramble starts for Missouri’s share of federal COVID-19 cash

With Missouri in line for almost $3 billion in federal COVID-19 relief funds, cities, schools and other agencies are lining up to give state lawmakers ideas on how to spend it.

The American Rescue Plan bill signed by President Joe Biden in early March will deliver $2.8 billion for general support to state spending and $195 million for state and local construction projects.

For the parade of presenters seeking a slice of that pie, a two-hour hearing Monday of the House Subcommittee on Federal Stimulus Spending was the chance to highlight projects long-deferred or too costly for local resources.

Jamie Rouch, the finance director of Branson, said her city of 11,000 people needed infrastructure to support as many as 100,000 tourists. She asked for $14 million to replace 5 miles of water mains, $4 million for a flood protection project, $26 million for a sewage treatment plant and $14 million to install sewer lines to newly annexed areas. And that was just the town’s top priorities, she noted.

“We have quite a list, so if you want me to stop, let me know,” Rouch said.

The subcommittee, chaired by state Rep. Doug Richey, R-Excelsior Springs, consists of four Republicans and two Democrats from the House Budget Committee. The subcommittee’s major task will be to screen requests in advance of expected recommendations from Gov. Mike Parson for spending bills coming in special sessions later this year, Richey said.

“This is going to be a helpful fact-finding mission to help establish the scope of need across the state for appropriations of the federal stimulus dollars for capital needs and deferred maintenance issues,” Richey said.

The House has already passed a $32.2 billion state budget plan for the coming fiscal year that is awaiting Senate action. The House Budget Committee is considering Tuesday a supplemental appropriations bill that has about $1 billion in total spending and is preparing a capital improvements bill for maintenance and construction costs.

In addition to long-term planning, the committee must also be ready to make suggestions if quick action is needed, Richey said.

“There seems to be interest to look at what might be able to be done now before we finish this legislative session,” he said.

So far, the U.S. Treasury hasn’t issued guidance for how states can use the $195.3 billion in direct aid but the legislation allocating the money directs its use to pandemic response, replacing lost revenue and “the negative economic impacts” of the COVID-19 emergency.

The aid bill is funded by federal borrowing, Richey reminded the committee, and asked that projects that win favor have a long-term positive impact on the economy.

“It is my perspective that these dollars aren’t necessarily representative of taxpayer dollars that are just simply coming back but they are representative of taxpayer indebtedness we are creating,” he said.

All the state’s colleges and universities made their requests during Monday’s hearing. For the 13 four-year campuses, the total request was about $420 million, almost all to renovate or make major repairs to existing buildings.

When the request included new instruction or lab space, the focus was on job readiness.

Corey Bradford, president of Harris-Stowe State University, asked for $48 million for a science, technology, engineering and mathematics education building. The St. Louis-based school has a growing reputation for its undergraduate STEM programs, he said, including recognition in 2019 as the best program at a historically black college or university.

The Missouri State Highway Patrol asked for $88 million to build a new training academy. The current structure is more than 50 years old and recruits live in dormitories built at the same time, Cathy Brown, director of the patrol’s Fleet Facilities Division, told the committee. The gym was not designed with separate male and female dressing areas and other facilities, she noted, and the general appearance is dismal.

“Our goal is always to try to find recruits around the state and retain those, and you never get a second chance to form a first impression,” she said. “And so when folks show up and see our academy, it’s embarrassing.”

Along with the aid to the state, Missouri cities and counties will receive $2.5 billion to help them recover from revenue losses due to the pandemic. The money comes from $130.2 billion set aside in the legislation for cities and counties nationwide.

The state funds can be combined with some of those local funds to help finance big projects, said Travis Wilson, director of economic development for Florissant.

Wilson asked the committee to provide $125 million to extend Highway 141, with runs from Arnold to Earth City, into north St. Louis County.

“While I understand that funds are obviously limited and it is a big ask, any funds would be appreciated,” Wilson said.

This article by Rudi Keller is published by permission of The Missouri Independent.

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