JEFFERSON CITY — The current version of the fiscal 2020 state budget, which both chambers of the legislature will vote to approve today or Friday, includes funding for a new medical research facility at the University of Missouri and possible funding to repair the Interstate 70 bridge near Rocheport.
A joint House-Senate conference committee almost finished negotiations Tuesday on a final version of the $30 billion state budget for the year beginning July 1.The conference committee will meet once more Thursday morning to finish discussing the bill concerning higher education funding, said state Rep. Kip Kendrick, D-Columbia and a member of the committee.
The budget also includes proposals for an increase in public defender funding, restores access to in-state tuition rates for undocumented college students who are residents of the state and funding a college grant program with lottery proceeds.
The conference committee adopted the Senate’s proposal of $10 million for the University of Missouri System’s Translational Precision Medicine Complex. Gov. Mike Parson recommended $1 million and the House recommended $3 million. The UM System has requested $50 million from the state to fund the $228 million building, with construction set to begin in July.
The Senate also proposed increasing core funding for all state colleges and universities by $1 million, with the exception of a $10 million increase for Missouri State University. Parson and the House did not recommend core funding increases.
The committee felt comfortable taking the Senate’s positions on giving more money to higher education because state general revenue is trending upward, said Kendrick, the House Budget Committee’s ranking Democrat.
As of Friday, revenue is up 1.98%, according to the House Budget Committee’s online report. The fiscal 2020 budget is based on the assumption that state general revenue will grow 1.7% by June 30, and projects a 2% increase in fiscal 2020.
The committee agreed to allocate $50 million in general revenue on bridge repairs and allow the Department of Transportation to bond $301 million, a plan the Senate approved in April after a lengthy floor debate about transportation funding. Parson initially proposed borrowing $351 million.
The bond depends on the state receiving a federal infrastructure grant that would pay to fix 250 bridges statewide, including the Rocheport bridge, which started undergoing emergency repairs on the eastbound lanes last week.
The state is not guaranteed to receive the grant, and legislators believe the state will not receive all the money it requested, Kendrick said. There will probably still be "a significant gap in funding" for the Rocheport project even if the grant allows extra money to be set aside for it, he said.
The committee also added language prohibiting MoDOT from spending money on toll roads on interstate highways, a decision that Kendrick said was frustrating.
"I continue to hear people in this body say that we need to be talking about all potential solutions when it comes to road and bridge infrastructure, and then I see them at the same time putting prohibitive language in a budget bill that restricts a potential avenue to explore," Kendrick said. "While I’m not a huge proponent of tolls, I do think they have to be part of the discussion. We should be talking about anything and everything."
The bill would require legislative approval of plans from MoDOT to create toll roads, but it does not prohibit MoDOT from studying toll roads as a possibility, said Sen. Lincoln Hough, R-Springfield and a member of the committee.
Boone County’s waiting list for legal services from public defenders should get some relief from the budget, Kendrick said, because the committee appropriated $500,000 in new funding for public defenders. As of mid-October, there were 470 defendants on the list, meaning their criminal cases were on hold while they waited for an attorney with time to represent them.
Missouri’s public defender system will still be underfunded, and it should be "an important part of the conversation we’re having about criminal justice reform," Kendrick said.
The conference committee planned to set aside $10 million from state lottery proceeds to fund the Fast-Track Workforce Incentive Grant, a program that would provide college grants for Missourians who are at least 25 years old and make less than $80,000 per year. A bill sponsored by Rep. Kathryn Swan, R-Cape Girardeau and a member of the House Budget Committee, passed the House in January but is awaiting further debate in the Senate. Parson proposed the program in his State of the State speech in January and recommended $22 million to fund it.
Members of the House Budget Committee expressed concerns in February about appropriating money for a program that depends on a bill not yet passed. The conference committee’s decision to appropriate less than half of Parson’s suggested amount and use lottery proceeds instead of general revenue was a "clear indication that there are concerns about whether or not the bill is going to pass," Kendrick said.
The program is modeled on legislation that has worked in other states but is new to Missouri, Hough said, so the committee recommended a smaller amount of funding for its first year. The bill has a sunset provision of three years to assuage the program’s skeptics, he said.
"My assumption is (the program) will work because it’s geared toward individuals that want to train up to that next level of complexity in the workforce," said Hough, the vice chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
The conference committee also proposed allowing higher education institutions the option of offering in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Undocumented students have been paying international tuition rates in Missouri since 2015, when the legislature included language in the fiscal 2016 budget prohibiting colleges and universities from offering these students financial aid and in-state tuition.
The proposal still keeps scholarships out of reach for DACA-eligible students. Schools could continue charging them international tuition rates if they so chose, Hough said.