Conservative Republican Emory Melton, R-Cassville, a state senator from 1973 to 1997, didn’t like it when new programs with ongoing costs ended up in Missouri’s budget.
“There’s nothing that approaches eternal life on this earth like a government program,” he told an oral history interviewer in 1996.
But when fellow Missouri lawmakers tapped the treasury for a small sum for their district, Melton didn’t object. They were just tending “a little ol’ pea patch.”
He wasn’t immune. Melton, who died in 2015, has his name on the conference center at Roaring River State Park that he secured $600,000 to build.
This year, with a record general revenue surplus and billions more in federal aid, pea patches are getting plenty of attention.
The Senate Appropriations Committee last week finished work on 13 spending bills for state operations in the year beginning July 1, sprinkling in amounts ranging from a few hundred thousand to a few million dollars — approximately $80 million in all — for hometown or specialized statewide interests.
Since the Senate’s items weren’t funded in the House budget plan — and because there are pea patch items from the lower chamber — the job for backers from now until the budget is finalized is to hang on to as much as possible.
The Kansas City Ballet is slated for help. So are the celebrations of Route 66 and Juneteenth. And there’s earmarked funds for individual senior centers, agricultural research facilities and not-for-profit agencies serving social needs.
Sen. Justin Brown, R-Rolla, added $430,000 for three senior centers in his district — $400,00 for Phelps Connections for Seniors, $20,000 for the Waynesville-St. Roberts Senior Center and $10,000 for the Dixon Senior Center.
To reach the intended recipient, budget language has to be specific without identifying the entity or location by name. In the budget bill, Brown’s request will be stated this way to direct the money to Phelps and Pulaski counties:
“For projects and upgrades for centers that support the senior community located in any county with more than forty thousand but fewer than fifty thousand inhabitants and with a county seat with more than eighteen thousand but fewer than twenty-one thousand inhabitants, and in any county with more than fifty thousand but fewer than sixty thousand inhabitants and with a county seat with more than four thousand but fewer than seven thousand inhabitants.”
For Democratic Sen. Barbara Washington, the goal was securing items for “any city with more than four hundred thousand inhabitants and located in more than one county” — commonly known as Kansas City, where Washington resides.
Washington added more than a dozen items. Among her proposals were $350,00 to increase the state’s annual support for the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, $400,00 for mental health programs at the Samuel Rogers Health Center and $150,000 for the youth guidance program known as BAM/WOW for Becoming A Man and Working On Womanhood.
She was playing catch-up for her community, she said.
“The budget came over to us with lots of those types of things already added in the House on the St. Louis side and throughout the state,” she said. “So, where it looks like I am doing all this requesting, it is because we didn’t have that in the House already.”
The appropriations committee completed its work on Wednesday and the full Senate is scheduled to debate the 13 bills starting Tuesday.
As proposed by Gov. Mike Parson in January, the bills totaled $44.5 billion, and the version sent from the House cost $43.9 billion. Final totals were not available Friday for the plan going to the Senate floor.
Another House-passed appropriation bill would spend about $2.6 billion in federal COVID-19 relief funds. The Senate Appropriations Committee will work on that bill after the operating budget is complete, along with three capital spending bills, adding about $950 million more, passed Thursday in the Missouri House.
Senate committee action wasn’t all about the small things. It also considered ideas for using the surplus in ways that control state costs for the future. Parson, for example, proposed using $500 million to buck up the state’s main employee pension fund, and the House revised that to a five-year plan. Parson asked for $100 million to pay state debt early, which the House increased to $276 million.
The Senate committee liked Parson’s plans, both for the Missouri State Employees Retirement System, or MOSERS, deposit and for debt retirement.
The biggest general revenue addition approved by the committee was $214 million to fully fund the state’s share of school transportation costs.
Sweating the small things
The little things were the biggest consumers of time during the nine hours the committee spent finalizing the appropriation bills. Not because of lengthy debate, but because each item had to be described so staff could write the language necessary to direct it to the right recipient.
To avoid a repeat during floor debate, Senate Majority Leader Caleb Rowden of Columbia said Thursday, members who aren’t among the 14 senators on the committee should have directed requests to Appropriations Chairman Dan Hegeman.
Hegeman had an open door for members, Rowden said.
“If they didn’t get it in the budget, through the committee process, and then shame on them because, you know, of any year, I’m sure that this would be a pretty easy year to do it,” he said.
The major institution in Rowden’s district, the University of Missouri, showed its lobbying power in the budget process. For the first time, the House included money, $11 million in all, to protect the budgets of the state’s smaller four-year universities, and the State Technical College of Missouri, from the cost of increasing retirement contributions.
Employees of those institutions are covered by MOSERS. There have been several years where the contribution rate increased at the same time state support was cut.
On Tuesday, the Senate appropriations committee agreed to give the University of Missouri System $4.9 million as a contribution to its separate retirement fund.
“This $4.9 million, one-time, just treats them all the same as the other institutions with the one-time payment made for their retirement system,” Sen. Lincoln Hough, R-Springfield, said as he made the request.
Rowden, who is the second-highest ranking Republican, said he did not ask for it.
“I didn’t even know about it,” Rowden said. “But it sounds like a great idea.”
There were several light moments as the committee worked through the bills.
After Washington secured the funds for mental health care through her community’s Federally Qualified Health Center, Hough asked for $500,000 to do the same at Jordan Valley Health Center, which serves the Springfield area.
“You copycat,” Washington said.
“I took the 400 and I added another hundred,” Hough replied.
Washington then asked for her request to be increased to match Hough’s.
“We’ve already done with yours, Sen. Washington,” Hegeman said.
Hegeman had his additions — one was $400,000 for the Graves-Chapple Extension and Education Center in Atchison County — but he also had to play umpire, sometimes seeking a reduction in the request or warning that some funds in the treasury have limits.
The Wood Energy Tax Credit supports conversion of wood waste into fuel, and Brown, whose district is a major lumber producer, asked to increase the allocation to $6 million.
During the pandemic, Brown said, mills had trouble marketing the waste.
“They need it to get rid of some of these sawdust piles,” he said.
Hegeman offered $2 million. Last year the amount was $1.5 million and the proposal from Parson, approved in the House, was to cut it to $740,000.
“I will take what I get. I would rather have 3, but if 2 is all you can do,” Brown said.
The bill will say $3 million, Hegeman decided.
Many of the Senate’s changes, large and small, will find a warm reception among House Democrats, who had urged for the state to use more of the surplus, state Rep. Peter Merideth of St. Louis said at the weekly Democratic press conference.
“I can say we’re very excited about a lot of the work that the Senate has done,” Merideth said. “They’ve taken a lot of our proposals and included them in their version of the budget.”
After the floor debate this week, the budget bills will go to a conference committee and the trading will begin. One point of leverage is the other chamber’s budget.
The House included $545,000 for a new electronic reporting board for its roll call votes. It wasn’t recommended in Parson’s budget. And it won’t be in the Senate version.
“We will take the governor’s position.” Hegeman said with a chuckle, “and we will have a conferencable item.”
This article by Rudi Keller is published by permission of The Missouri Independent.