The Missouri House Budget Committee working through the revisions proposed by Chairman Cody Smith, R-Carthage, to the fiscal 2024 state budget (Rudi Keller/Missouri Independent).
Some of the biggest items in Missouri Gov. Mike Parson’s proposed spending plan are in danger of being cut in the House Budget Committee, including money for child care providers, state universities and widening Interstate 70.
The budget revisions submitted Tuesday by committee Chairman Cody Smith, R-Carthage, cut $1.5 billion in general revenue and about $2.6 billion total from the $51.6 billion proposal Parson made in January. The cuts include $859 million for widening I-70, $134.5 million for child care and pre-kindergarten education and $250 million the governor wanted to put in a reserve fund for future education needs.
Smith also took aim at some smaller lines in the budget, targeting libraries because the Missouri Library Association joined the ACLU and the Missouri Association of School Libraries in a suit challenging a new state law limiting the materials available in school libraries. Smith wants to cut $4.5 million, the full budget for state aid to libraries, in retaliation for the lawsuit.
“I don’t think we should subsidize that effort,” Smith said about the cut to money that flows through the budget of Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft. “We are going to take out the funding and that is why.”
The budget committee met for several hours Tuesday reviewing Smith’s proposed changes. The committee will meet again Thursday, where members will vote on Smith’s revisions and propose amendments of their own.
Smith intends several of the cuts to be permanent but some are likely to resurface later.
The money for I-70, for example, will be discussed when the committee reviews other large building projects, he said.
“There are many projects across the state that many legislators are interested in addressing,” Smith said.
By putting off the discussion, he said it will “give time to figure out what we as a committee would like to prioritize in the state’s infrastructure network.”
The $134.5 million cut to child care and pre-kindergarten education includes $78.5 million to increase rates for child care providers and $56 million to pay for early education programs in public and charter schools.
The shortage of child care was identified early in the session as a top issue for lawmakers. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce estimated in 2021 that Missouri loses over $1.3 billion annually from accessibility, quality, and cost-related hurdles to child care. The appropriation proposals go along with legislation offering tax credits to make child care more affordable and accessible.
The appropriation for child care is based on a “flawed” rate study, Smith said.
“The department has given us some bad information on what the childcare subsidy rate increase would cost,” Smith said in an interview during a committee recess.
The early childhood funding was cut because he wants time to consider how best to provide the program, Smith said.
The increases can wait, he said, because about $1 billion in federal funds from COVID-19 relief spending are being distributed to child care programs. That is five times the state’s annual spending in support of child care needs, he said.
“We’re already kind of awash with child care money in Missouri,” he said.
Several members of the committee were skeptical of Smith’s reasons for cutting the child care and early education funding. Rep. Brenda Shields, a St. Joseph Republican and sponsor of the tax credits bill, said that getting more information to committee members is important to shore up support for the funding.
“I have to be hopeful,” Shields said. “We are still early in the process.”
There was also bipartisan pushback on Smith’s plan to change how $58.9 million earmarked to increase state aid to four-year universities will be distributed. Parson asked lawmakers to provide a simple 7% funding increase. Smith wants to use yet-to-be finalized performance measures to determine how much each of the universities would receive.
Lawmakers put $450,000 in this year’s budget for developing the performance funding system and set a Dec. 15 date for completion.
For decades, most funding decisions for higher education have been based on whether aid would be increased – or occasionally decreased – by a set percentage amount.
“The way we fund our universities is antiquated and illogical,” Smith said.
Committee members questioned whether the performance plan would be ready for the new fiscal year. That raises the possibility the money will not be distributed to the schools, they said.
Employees of state universities were not included in the 8.7% pay raises given to state workers this month because their paychecks do not come directly from the state treasury. State Rep. Kevin Windham, D-Hillsdale, said it was unfair to put conditions on the funding boost.
“This inflationary increase is, in my mind, supposed to go to the staff of the universities,” Windham said, “because they did not get the same increase other state employees did.”
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