The Missouri House on Tuesday approved a plan to spend as much federal coronavirus relief money as possible before it expires at the end of the year.
The $1.3 billion maneuver requested by Gov. Mike Parson, a Republican, passed the lower chamber on a 133-4 vote. The Senate is expected to take up the issue next week.
The biggest piece of it authorizes the state to spend roughly $750 million in COVID-19 relief money on anything it can in an effort to conserve state dollars for the coming year.
For example, state budget director Dan Haug said the state would be taking advantage of new federal rules allowing them to use relief money to pay salaries of state correctional workers, highway patrol and state health lab employees rather than precious state general revenue.
The state will also use the money to replace some of the more than $500 million paid out of the unemployment trust fund since the beginning of the year, saving employers from having to refill the entire gap with their taxes.
The bill also authorizes the state to spend a $135 million grant it received to help pay for COVID-19 testing, contact tracing and related technology tools.
The state is currently suffering its worst surge in virus numbers since the pandemic began, reporting an average of 3,125 new cases per day last week.
The bill also includes a $96 million item to distribute boosts to child support payments, a $75 million provision to cover the cost of meals for schoolchildren and an $18 million addition for homeless prevention efforts.
The bill will also allocate $2 million for a new crime witness protection program lawmakers created in September aimed at helping police stem a rise in violent crime in the state’s major cities.
As usual, a few lawmakers used debate on the bill to talk about what they wish would change.
Rep. Justin Hill, R-Lake St. Louis, used the $75 million for school nutrition programs as a premise to rail against virtual learning and virus precautions in his local school district.
“Our school districts have become glorified lunchrooms,” he said. “They are not educating children but they certainly are going to have money to give out free food.”
On the other side of the aisle, Democrats argued for boosting funding to struggling child care providers and the city of St. Louis, which has spent all but $2 million of its share of federal relief money.
“Our people are suffering, and it is up to us to make the change for them,” Rep. LaKeySha Bosley, D-St. Louis, said. “We should be giving them everything they need.”
Austin Huguelet is the News-Leader’s politics reporter. Got something he should know? Have a question? Call him at 417-403-8096 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.