Missouri Senate committee triples funding for widening I-70 across the state

The proposed Missouri state budget grew by more than $2 billion Tuesday as the Senate Appropriations Committee dipped into the massive state surplus to widen Interstate 70 from Wentzville to Blue Springs.

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The committee also added hundreds of millions for other programs to the spending plan passed late last month by the Missouri House, either by adopting original proposals from Gov. Mike Parson or initiating new spending lines. 

Restoring Parson’s proposal to increase pre-kindergarten programs provided by school districts added $78 million. Other items added money for higher education initiatives, community drinking- and waste-water programs, tourism grants and lottery advertising.

Senate AppropriationsChairman Lincoln Hough, R-Springfield, said many of the additions were to promote the economic health of the communities targeted for spending. Some of the money, he said, is to complete projects begun with federal COVID-19 recovery grants.

“I want to see us continue to invest in those infrastructure projects that are going to be meaningful for communities,” Hough said. “There are communities all over the place that have industrial parks that just have a little bit of infrastructure that they need to finish out, and they can open up a 100 acre development site.”

The committee will resume its work Wednesday, putting its imprint on funding for health, mental health and social services programs. The committee will also decide if it will retain any portion of the controversial ant-diversity, equity and inclusion language added by House Republicans.

The full Senate is expected to debate the budget next week. All spending bills must be passed by both chambers by May 5.

The Senate committee began working Tuesday as the Missouri House was giving first-round approval to a set of construction spending bills that included Parson’s proposed $859 million earmarked for I-70.

The governor’s proposal is expected to finance widening the highway in three sections totaling about 55 miles. The plan presented Tuesday by Hough would put an extra lane on about 190 miles of the interstate.

Like Parson’s proposal, it relies heavily on the surplus of more than $5 billion in general revenue as a key source of funding. Hough’s plan would set aside $1.4 billion from general revenue and finance the rest with bonds to be repaid over 15 years.

The budget would also include about $135 million set aside for the first bond payment. That will give the Missouri Department of Transportation the flexibility to use whatever financing makes the best fiscal sense, Hough said.

Despite rising interest rates, “bond rates right now are good,” Hough said. “I don’t know what they’re gonna do three, four years from now. So it might make sense to me that, we put half of the cash in the bank, set aside, but we also tell (the Office of Administration), tell MoDOT, that you’ve got next year’s bond payment if you want to initiate those bonds now.”

The House passed an operating budget that proposes spending $45.6 billion, including about $12.6 billion in general revenue. The total is about $2.1 billion less than Parson proposed, but almost $1 billion is because the I-70 plan was shifted into the construction bills.

The committee sped through all the spending lines for 11 of the 17 state departments in a little more than three hours and exact totals were unavailable at the end of the day.

In many instances, when the House cut or not funded an item proposed by Parson, the Senate committee adopted the original budget. In some cases, such as for state universities, the House spent the same amount as Parson but made some of the money contingent upon future actions. For the universities, that future action was the approval of a performance funding system.

Instead, the Senate committee gave the institutions the 7% boost in funding proposed by Parson. 

Missouri governor’s plan for widening I-70 fully funded in proposed capital budget

Several universities received special extra funding. The University of Missouri will receive $25 million through the state Department of Agriculture to develop a research slaughterhouse to explore new methods in animal processing, and $15 million to boost a national center for applying technology to teaching.

Lincoln University in Jefferson City will receive a $2.1 million addition to its budget to help it compete for the limited workforce in central Missouri. State agencies have given employees raises totaling 16.2% since the start of 2022 and the money will help Lincoln keep up, Hough said.

“They’re kind of backed up against a wall on what they can do based on what we’re doing with all of our employees,” Hough said.

The four bills given first round approval in the House on Tuesday will add about $2.4 billion to state spending in the coming fiscal year. There were few major changes on the House floor. One of the larger added $5 million from parks funds for work on the Rock Island trail by a 72-71 vote, while Republicans defeated Democratic attempts to tap the I-70 funding to boost mass transit.

After the House defeated an amendment by Rep. Peter Merideth, D-St. Louis, to use $60 million to fund free use of local transit systems, he asked for about $9 million to fully fund MoDOT’s budget request for transit.

It represented just 1% of the money set aside for I-70 and the costs of that highway are unknown until bids come in, he said.

“Where have we ever had a project that large that came within 1% of its cost?” Meredith asked as he pleaded for support.

That amendment was defeated on a voice vote.

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