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Budget committee restores funding for Missouri water projects, including lead pipe removal

Plans for using stimulus funds also include community development, campus construction projects

The House Budget Committee reversed a $360 million cut to a program to improve water infrastructure, including removing lead pipes, as it completed a plan for using federal stimulus funds.

Budget Chairman Cody Smith had planned to cut $51 million from the program but said objections from Rep. Don Mayhew, an engineer by trade, had convinced him to put the money back.

Missouri House Budget Committee Chairman Cody Smith (center) makes remarks March 31, 202, at the start of the markup session for the fiscal 2023 budget.

Missouri has $2.8 billion from the American Rescue Plan Act signed in March 2021 by President Joe Biden. The money is dedicated to replacing revenue lost in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic and providing money for projects that support long-term economic health.

Gov. Mike Parson’s budget plan included proposals for spending every dollar, but Smith cut many programs to amounts that could be spent in the coming year. But Mayhew said Monday that the timelines for using the money could leave the state short of its goal of eliminating lead water supply lines.

The stimulus funds must be appropriated by the end of 2024 and fully spent by the end of 2026. Mayhew, R-Crocker, said the money must be available or it would delay projects beyond those dates. That, and further conversations with Mayhew, changed his mind, Smith said.

“It was everything in that decision,” Smith said.

Missouri has the 6th most lead service lines of any state in the U.S., according to a report issued last year by the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Debate on the stimulus plan came at the end of a marathon committee session Thursday, where it also went through 13 bills for operating state government in the coming year and a supplemental spending bill to cover this year’s bills.

When the committee concluded, after more than nine hours of continuous work, the 15 bills were approved. House floor debate will take place this week.

Major changes from Parson’s proposal, announced last week by Smith and incorporated into the bills members worked from on Thursday, included a cut of $200 million to community development and revitalization programs, leaving $50 million; $300 million from the State Emergency Management Agency, leaving $100 million; and $150 million from broadband infrastructure construction, leaving $100 million.

The committee did not touch Parson’s construction proposals, which include $468.9 million in capital improvements on college and university campuses, $104.7 million for a new public safety crime lab and $33.6 million for a new arena at the State Fairgrounds.

Smith’s plan added one, $88 million for a new service academy building for the Missouri State Highway Patrol.

By paring back many of Parson’s proposals, Smith made about $1 billion available for members to offer their ideas. By restoring the water infrastructure funding, that amount was cut to about $600 million, and the 30 amendments prepared for members sought as little as $15,000 to respond to homeless camps and as much as $353 million to provide a pay premium for teachers.

Not all were offered, and not all that were offered were passed. 

Missouri Rep. LaKeySha Bosley, D-St. Louis

State Rep. LaKeySha Bosley, D-St. Louis, tried unsuccessfully to obtain $2 million for a pilot project to help children who are survivors of gun violence. 

Some opponents questioned whether that was the role of school counselors and others said money was being spent in other budget lines for similar support. Bosley, in reply, said that school counselors were overwhelmed and that St. Louis children had needs that weren’t being met.

“We are trying to find a solution for child survivors of gun violence,” she said.

Bosley’s amendment was voted down, as were many of the smaller proposals that came forward.

For some ideas, opponents argued that federal aid to local governments should be used instead, and some said they worried about picking particular agencies to receive funding.

And for some, they were opposed because they didn’t want to fill the bill with pet projects.

“I am fully aware that the Senate is going to load the bill up with a bunch of direct appropriations,” said State Rep. Doug Richey, R-Excelsior Springs and chair of the subcommittee that reviewed the stimulus funds. “I get that.”

Other proposals from Bosley included $5 million for $5,000 stipends for emergency dispatchers, and $353.1 million to provide premium pay at $13 an hour, up to $5,000, for every teacher in the state who has worked for at least a year

State Rep. Mitchell Boggs, R-LaRussell, opposed both proposals. One-time payments won’t solve staffing issues, and many workers deserve recognition but are not included, he argued.

“It is a gift that won’t keep giving,” Boggs said.

Teachers are under particular financial and personal stress, buying supplies for students and dealing with problems beyond education, Bosley said. At the end of the discussion, she said she realized it was going to fail.

“It sounds like it is a resounding no,” Bosley said, “because it is a lot of money and it sounds scary.”

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

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