Updated at 7:05 p.m. Jan. 27 with comments from lawmakers
Gov. Mike Parson used his first State of the State address since being overwhelmingly elected to a four-year term to double down on his top priorities of his first years in office — improving job training and state transportation.
He also touched on expanding Medicaid under the auspices of the Affordable Care Act, the result of a constitutional amendment that Missouri voters approved last year.
“At some point in our lives, many of us have probably been reminded of the importance of considering the past when making decisions for the future,” Parson said. “This advice seems especially fitting given the challenges we have faced over the past year. Missouri has seen some difficult days in the past 200 years: from the Civil War and the Great Depression, women’s suffrage and civil rights, to the COVID-19 crisis and countless other hardships. But through it all, Missouri has prevailed.”
The speech Wednesday, the first delivered during the COVID-19 pandemic, was markedly different from past addresses. The GOP chief executive delivered the State of the State in the Missouri Senate chamber, after a number of lawmakers contracted COVID-19 over the past few weeks.
Much of Parson’s address, his third State of the State since becoming governor in 2018, honed in on his desire to enhance workforce development and infrastructure programs. That included calling for $21.8 million to train people at two- and four-year colleges for high-demand jobs.
Parson also said that over the past year, the Missouri Department of Transportation was able to focus on 550 road projects. MoDOT Director Patrick McKenna said before the speech that his agency was able to complete more projects in 2020 because there were fewer people on the road.
“I have always said that you can’t emphasize workforce development without infrastructure,” Parson said. “They go hand-in-hand, and we must continue to invest in both in order to succeed. Now more than ever, we must capitalize on Missouri’s strategic location in the center of the nation and build on the opportunity to become a powerful logistics hub not only for the Midwest and the United States, but for all of North America.”
Parson also spent much of his speech discussing his administration’s efforts to ramp up distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine, something that Missouri, and many other states, have struggled with over the past few weeks. Missouri is last in the country in the percentage of first dose of vaccinations given, according to the CDC.
Parson detailed a number of ways that the administration has dealt with the coronavirus crisis.
“We have now shipped over 22 million gowns, 18 million gloves, 8 million surgical masks, 5 million N95 masks, and 1 million face shields to frontline health care providers,” Parson said. “We were one of the first states in the nation to submit our COVID-19 vaccine plan … and have now administered nearly 400,000 doses to Missourians. The bottom line is that we have been working day in and day out to fight COVID-19 while also dealing with civil unrest, violent crime and a difficult budget.”
He said that one of his major priorities is getting liability protection for businesses against coronavirus-related lawsuits.
“I hope the first piece of legislation to hit my desk this year is a clean COVID-19 liability protection bill,” Parson said. “Missouri businesses, manufacturers, health care providers, schools, churches and many other entities across the state did not hesitate to step up and help their communities in the fight against COVID-19.”
That proposal got a warm reception from Missouri Chamber of Commerce President Dan Mehan.
“Right now, Missouri employers are completely exposed to this threat. We urge Missouri lawmakers to heed the governor’s call and make stopping COVID-19 lawsuits the first bill passed this session,” Mehan said in a statement.
During a press conference with reporters, House Minority Leader Crystal Quade said: “I don’t want to have that discussion on how we protect folks from being sued if we still have folks who don’t have access to the vaccine.
“I’m happy to have the liability conversation, but that should not be our priority right now,” Quade said, adding that the administration should also focus on keeping small businesses open and getting personal protective equipment to health care facilities.
Parson also announced the creation of the Office of Childhood, which would consolidate several programs to enhance early childhood education into one office. Increasing funding for early childhood education has been a major priority for Parson since he took office.
“This new office will not only help streamline the operation of several state programs, but also allow us to place a bigger focus on early childhood development – a critical component to the future success of Missourians for generations to come,” Parson said.
Additionally, Parson reiterated his desire for the Legislature to tax online retailers in a similar manner to how brick-and-mortar stores are taxed. The proposal, known as Wayfair after a U.S. Supreme Court case authorizing the practice, has been proposed for a few years — but failed to gain much traction.
“I am a strong supporter of lower taxes – in fact, I have signed several tax cuts into law,” Parson said. “However, our small businesses, especially in smaller communities, are getting crushed right now because they cannot compete with huge online retailers. We must level that playing field and consider ways to responsibly invest those revenues and provide new opportunities for our state.”
One of the most significant agenda items mentioned during Parson’s speech was his plan to follow through on a voter-approved constitutional amendment to expand Medicaid.
“Like I have said many times, I will always uphold the will of the voters, and we will move forward with expanding Medicaid coverage to approximately 275,000 Missourians,” Parson said. “However, it is important to remember that the costs of this expansion will be significant – hundreds of millions of dollars, in fact. This will have a major impact on other areas of our budget, and we must plan accordingly. Which means staying vigilant in maintaining the program’s integrity by protecting against fraud and waste.”
Parson and other Republican lawmakers have opposed Medicaid expansion for more than 15 years. As a member of the Missouri House, Parson voted to drastically cut eligibility for the program when he was a first-year representative. But now that Medicaid expansion is in the constitution, implementing it is no longer optional.
The expansion, which could cost $1.9 billion when including federal funds, would cover an estimated 275,000 people. More than $120 million of that expansion will be covered with state general revenue dollars.
State Budget Director Dan Haug said that he’s not expecting cuts in other areas because the federal government is providing more matching funds for Medicaid than in prior years.
“So for this budget, it is not causing some of those crowding-out issues,” he said. “My concern is going forward.”
Emily Kalmer, director of government relations in Missouri for the Cancer Action Network, said in a statement her group was “pleased to see the governor prioritizing access to health insurance coverage and public health in his proposed budget.”
“Today, the governor honored the will of Missourians by including funding to implement Medicaid expansion,” Kalmer said.
Quade said a priority for her caucus will be to ensure that funding is available.
“But we do know that the other side of the aisle is having conversations about shrinking that population, having less coverage for folks who need it,” she said. “And for us, we’re just not going to stand for that.”
Some other major spending items include $100 million for state facility maintenance and repair, as well as $5 million for rural broadband grants. Parson is also proposing about $68.2 million in bonding for 28 projects at 22 state parks, including electrical and wastewater upgrades, cabin construction and new campgrounds.
Despite the economic downturn that came from the COVID-19 pandemic, Haug said the Missouri budget is actually in pretty good shape. He pointed to how federal COVID-19 funds went to state employee salaries that normally would have used general revenue. And he also said that since scores of income tax returns came in after July 1, the state will effectively have two filing deadlines during one fiscal year.
“We’re pretty pleased with how the economy has bounced back compared to where it was in the spring,” Haug said.
One subplot of Wednesday’s address was the venue. Traditionally, the governor delivers the speech to a joint session of the Missouri General Assembly in the House chamber. But it was moved to the Senate on Wednesday afternoon.
A joint statement of House and Senate leaders said that having the speech in the Senate chamber “would ensure attendees can meet CDC guidelines recommending six feet of social distancing.”
“The COVID-19 pandemic has reshaped Missourians’ lives in every possible way — underscoring the need for patience and flexibility at home, at school and at the workplace,” the statement said. “The temporary relocation will maximize safety while still honoring the tradition of an in-person address by the Governor.”
A spokeswoman for Parson said his office was told at 10:30 a.m. that the speech could not be delivered in the House chamber for “COVID reasons.” A number of lawmakers, including Sen. Andrew Koenig of Manchester, have contracted COVID-19 in recent days.
Senate Minority Leader John Rizzo, an Independence Democrat who is quarantining after coming into contact with someone who tested positive for the virus, said Parson should have conducted the speech virtually — similarly to the way he held press conferences via Facebook Live throughout 2020. The speech was livestreamed on Facebook.
“It’s everything that the CDC tells us not to do — gathering people in large groups,” Rizzo said. “Some people aren’t wearing masks for long periods of time. They’re traveling across the state and then traveling back. None of the ways they’re approaching any of this in regards to how the Capitol is operating is based in any science or data.”
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