Missouri Senate OKs $1.3B plan to spend remaining COVID-19 relief money
Gov. Mike Parson’s plan to spend as much federal coronavirus relief money as possible before it expires passed the Missouri Senate with little debate Wednesday.
The $1.3 billion maneuver now heads to Parson’s desk for approval, which should happen quickly.
The biggest piece of the plan grants the Parson administration power to spend roughly $750 million in relief money on anything federal rules allow in an effort to conserve state dollars for other budget items.
State budget director Dan Haug said last month that at least some of that money could pay salaries of state correctional workers, highway patrol and state health lab employees, for example.
The state also plans to spend some of the money on protective gear for health workers to take advantage of a federal initiative reimbursing those buys.
Haug said anything unspent by the Dec. 30 deadline will then go to the state’s unemployment fund to replace some of the $600 million or so paid out in claims this year.
That maneuver, which could add around $300 million-$400 million to the fund, is intended to make sure companies don’t have to pay higher taxes to refill it. The fund had around $460 million in it at the end of October.
A couple of legislators said they would have liked to use some of the leftovers on other things.
Sen. Lincoln Hough, R-Springfield, said he would have liked to see some money go to hospitals dealing with the virus surge, home health care workers who need protective gear or restaurants trying to eke it out under capacity restrictions.
“There are some very real needs in this state and those are just a few of them where I think the money could be better utilized,” he said.
But Hough did not offer any amendments in committee or on the floor.
Asked why, he said that “giving the governor some flexibility with these dollars is not a bad thing.”
Other states have used their relief money to help residents cover utility payments and dole out hundreds of millions of dollars in small business grants.
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.
That comes as the state is suffering through one of the roughest stretches of the pandemic yet.
The state reported roughly a third of the cases it’s seen since March in the past month and identified roughly a quarter of its deaths.
Hospitalizations hit record one-day highs 14 times in the same time period, creating fears that hospital capacity could soon be overwhelmed.
Roughly 76 percent of all hospital beds were in use as of Sunday.
Parson was scheduled to hold a news conference announcing plans to help with hospital capacity issues after the News-Leader’s deadline Wednesday evening.
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 the new program in September in an effort to help police stem a rise in violent crime in the state’s major cities.
At the beginning of the week, the Senate was also expected to take up a proposal to shield nursing homes and other businesses from lawsuits related to COVID-19.
Many businesses have sought such exemptions here and in other states in an effort to stave off claims they’re responsible for people getting sick or dying.
Last month, Parson asked legislators to deal with the issue in special session before the end of the year, but apparently changed his mind Tuesday, when he told senators to pull the bill and wait for regular session, which starts in January.
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 email@example.com.