Lawmakers pack Missouri budget with earmarks for local agencies, building projects

Special appropriations add $1.1 billion to the budget in amounts ranging from $8,000 to $50 million as lawmakers tap historic state surplus

By: - May 16, 2023 12:09 pm

Missouri’s $50 billion state budget includes $8,000 for the Lone Jack Police Department to buy long rifles and $376,571 for the Lone Jack Fire District for radio equipment (Annelise Hanshaw/Missouri Independent).

Lone Jack Police Chief Tim Cosner was confused. 

His state senator, Mike Cierpiot, was on the line asking him about a request to fund radio equipment in the state budget. He needed details, Cierpiot told Cosner, in order to pass them along to Senate Appropriations Chairman Lincoln Hough.

Cosner had no clue what Cierpiot was talking about.

But after a few minutes it dawned on him: Cierpiot thought he was on the phone with the Lone Jack Fire District. 

Both men had a laugh, and recovering from the faux pas, Cierpiot asked if Cosner needed anything for his department. The first thing that came to mind was long rifles, rarely used but handy when needed.

“It was just an impromptu thing,” Cosner said. “I didn’t know it was coming. It was more or less a fly by the seat of our pants kind of deal.”

Cierpiot confirmed the story in an interview with The Independent.

“After a little bit, I realized I was wrong when he said, ‘the fire department does have radio issues, but ours are fine,” Cierpiot said. “And I just said, ‘well, chief, is there anything else I can do for you?’ And he just said that they’ve been trying to buy my long rifles for their police force.”

The Lone Jack Police Department (Annelise Hanshaw/Missouri Independent).

And so that’s how an earmarked appropriation of $8,000 was included in the $50.7 billion state budget approved by lawmakers earlier this month. It’s the smallest of about 275 items, totaling $1.1 billion, earmarked for individual cities or groups and sprinkled throughout the 18 spending bills awaiting action from Gov. Mike Parson.

Other earmarks for Lone Jack are $376,571 for those radios for the fire district and $1.9 million for a new access ramp to U.S. Highway 50.

Each item can be vetoed or reduced by Parson via the line-item veto he can exercise over appropriation bills. Lawmakers meet for up to 10 days each September to consider whether to override vetoes.

In an interview with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Parson indicated he intends to veto many of the earmarked items but gave no specifics.

“There’s definitely a lot of fluff in the budget,” Parson told the newspaper. 

Most of the items, $769 million worth, are financed by the massive general revenue surplus, approximately $5 billion and growing, accumulated over the past three years. 

The bulging budget allowed lawmakers to bring home money for community groups promoting better health, education and employment opportunities; for new buildings and roads projects; and to help local government agencies with big expenses like water infrastructure and tourism projects.

Some examples of projects that made it into the budget include:

  • $43 million for a new veterinary diagnostic laboratory at the University of Missouri that must be named for former state Sen. Dan Brown, a veterinarian who died in 2021.
  • $50 million to fund improvements near Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City in advance of the 2026 FIFA World Cup soccer tournament.
  • $20 million for “parking, roadways, lighting, utilities and sidewalks” at Riverside Amphitheater in St. Louis County.
  • $4.4 million for a regional 911 call center in Polk County.

The process of getting projects into the budget was “a free for all,” said Rep. Peter Merideth of St. Louis, the ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee.

“Sometimes that might mean they had good lobbyists,” Merideth said. “Sometimes it might mean that, you know, we know them in our community, and we really value what they do and want to help. Is that a good process? No, I don’t think so.”

Plenty of money

House Budget Committee Chairman Cody Smith, left, shares a light moment with Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Lincoln Hough during a conference committee meeting on the fiscal 2024 budget (Rudi Keller/Missouri Independent).

When Parson released his budget plan in January, it projected the slowest year-over-year growth since before the COVID-19 pandemic and the first decline in the accumulated general revenue surplus. Double-digit revenue growth was expected to cool to a mere 1.4% and slow further to half that rate in the year that begins July 1.

But tax receipts have continued their strong growth and as of Thursday, stood 10.6% higher than the same point in fiscal 2022. Sustained to June 30, general revenue receipts for the year would be about $14.25 billion, which would add $1.2 billion to the anticipated surplus of $5 billion.

The budget on Parson’s  desk does some big things with that money. There’s $1.4 billion set aside for a $2.8 billion plan for widening Interstate 70 that also relies on borrowed funds. 

The surplus will also help finance a new $300 million psychiatric hospital in Kansas City. 

But when it came to requests from individual legislators, the approaches in each chamber were markedly different. 

The House is governed by a rule that requires any new project using general revenue or a fund that can be spent like general revenue to be funded with a corresponding cut in some other area.

“We’ve gone through a process that’s very transparent, and is done in the light of day, and we take our time and deliberate on how much we want to spend and what we want to spend it on,” said House Budget Chairman Cody Smith, R-Carthage. “The culture of the Missouri Houses is what it should be to responsibly craft a budget.”

Hough, who heard pleas for money from House members as well as Senators, said his attitude is to fund the things that make sense.

“I asked the elected officials to prioritize what would be most impactful for them in their districts, not throw spaghetti at a wall, and let’s just see what hits the ground and what sticks,” Hough said. “These are priorities from the officeholders all over the state.”

Of the 275 earmarks identified by The Independent, 173 are for $1 million or more, including 58 that would cost at least $5 million. There’s funds for airports and river ports, for economic and cultural programs and for waste water, storm water and drinking water projects.

There’s $100,000 to restore a pre-desegregation Black school in Platte County, $200,000 for an after-school drama club in St. Louis and $300,000 for walkability improvements in Grandview. Downtown Sweet Springs would get $500,000 for building restoration.

There is also $250,000 for the Green Acres Urban Farm and Research Project in Kansas City, $225,000 for doula services in Springfield, and $630,000 for the Katy Trail Community Health Clinic in Sedalia.

Larger amounts mean larger projects. The budget would pay $2.5 million for a pedestrian bridge at Fellows Lake in Springfield, $3 million for capital improvements at Powell Symphony Hall in St. Louis and $5 million for the Warrensburg Industrial Park. 

The total for all earmarked items is more than 10 times the amounts included last year. During filibusters that stalled action during the final week of the session, Sen. Bill Eigel, a Weldon Spring Republican and a likely candidate for governor, decried the “hundreds of earmarks spending billions of dollars.”

“We have a real problem with spending,” Eigel said in an interview. “I am not comfortable with the small amount of vetting that goes into these budget bills.”

Hough and Smith have enormous power, and other lawmakers only see the full picture when presented with a take-it-or-leave-it decision on the budget, Eigel said.

“There’s just no way a human being can sit through a few hours of appropriations, or even over the course of three or four weeks, and digest and make conscious decisions for right or wrong and all this money,” Eigel said.

Hough, however, said he trusts the lawmakers bringing the requests as the best judge of what should be funded.

“I say, ‘you all know your communities better than I do, or someone else on the committee does, right?’” Hough said. “So I’m going to trust you, when you say these are the things that are most important for us.”

Dan Brown Veterinary Lab

The University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine. The school is in line for a $43 million diagnostic laboratory to be named for the late Sen. Dan Brown of Rolla, a 1977 graduate (Rudi Keller/Missouri Independent).

The University of Missouri captured almost $1 out of every $7 of general revenue earmarks in the budget, obtaining an impressive list of program and project funding. 

The biggest projects – the new veterinary diagnostic laboratory and a $25 million research abattoir, or slaughterhouse, both on the Columbia campus – were not among the priority construction projects requested by the university. 

They also did not appear on the most recent five-year capital plan approved by the Board of Curators.

The other items added to the budget for the four-campus UM System are:

  • $16 million for the Missouri University of Science & Technology in Rolla to study the potential for mining critical minerals in the state;
  • $15 million to build up the eMINTS program for integrating technology in the classroom;
  • $1 million boost to international collaboration programs at University of Missouri-St. Louis;
  • $2 million to improve the soil lab and $1 million for greenhouse and farm buildings at the Delta Research Center in Portageville;
  • $2 million to fund a soybean research farm operated in collaboration with MU.

“We are always grateful and have been grateful for the support of the state legislature,” university spokesman Christian Basi said.

He declined any other comment on the items until after Parson makes decisions on what he will fund.

Sen. Justin Brown, R-Rolla, asked for the veterinary school funding. 

“That part of the veterinary school has been needed to be updated for decades,” Brown said. “Actually, probably a lot of that equipment was there when my father graduated in 1977 from veterinary school.”

Brown’s father, Dan Brown, died in 2021. In addition to being a veterinarian, he was a state lawmaker from 2009 to 2019, and Justin Brown succeeded his father in the Senate. 

The funding in the appropriation for the veterinary lab could be vetoed or reduced by Parson but he cannot edit the description of what the money is to be used for, including “that such building shall be named in honor of Doctor Dan Brown.”

Brown said Hough suggested naming the building in the budget bill and his family is grateful.

“It’s absolutely wonderful that they’re going to name that for my dad, but you know, more importantly, the university really needs that,” Brown said.

Parson will likely announce his budget actions just before the fiscal year begins July 1.

“I’m sure we’ll have some conversation, you know, with the (governor’s office) about that,” Brown said, “and hopefully it all stays in there.”

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Rudi Keller
Rudi Keller

Rudi Keller covers the state budget and the legislature. A graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, he spent 22 of his 32 years in journalism covering Missouri government and politics for the Columbia Daily Tribune, where he won awards for spot news and investigative reporting.