JEFFERSON CITY — Despite some vocal concerns, the Missouri Senate Appropriations Committee unanimously chose to move forward with a bill that would open up $1.3 billion in federal funds relating to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The legislature must appropriate federal CARES Act money by Dec. 31 or it cannot be used. Doing so was the primary aim of the current special session called by Gov. Mike Parson.
The special session, which began on Nov. 5, initially seemed to be moving quickly. Five days later, the state House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved the spending bill with only four members voting no, while 133 voted yes.
Then, shortly before the Senate committee was expected to take up the bill, a COVID-19 outbreak among Senate Republicans and staff delayed proceedings.
Now that the spending bill has reached senators, some are voicing their concerns.
Sen. Lincoln Hough, R-Springfield, said that he was troubled by the lack of certainty in how the funds would be used.
“As the appropriators here, I haven’t seen the plan on how the money is actually going to go out the door,” Hough told State Budget Director Dan Haug.
Hough also expressed frustration that the administration was asking them to appropriate federal funds, while funds from state collected revenue had not been spent.
“I believe that if we’re going to collect taxes from the people in this state, we ought to provide services for them,” Hough said.
Haug responded that those funds would eventually be spent, but that he cannot spend them unless the legislature allows him to.
“The appropriators give me the top level of what I can spend,” Haug said.
Haug also stressed that this federal money would be lost if not appropriated by the end of the year.
Other senators had concerns as well.
“We need a place to put the money, I would just like to voice my concerns that this is not the best place to put the money,” said Sen. Dan Hegeman, R-Cosby, when discussing an unemployment fund. Hegeman chairs the committee.
The questions posed to Haug were not limited to Republican members of the committee. Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis, asked Haug multiple times how much money would be going to St. Louis for different line items.
“I think you know what I’m going to say now,” Nasheed said at one point.
Nasheed and Hough shared an exchange over whether accepting federal money is the right thing to do, even when it is not entirely clear where that money will go. Nasheed argued that it was not only right, but necessary.
“We should think about holding some dollars behind, because we don’t know what’s going to happen the next two to three years because of the pandemic,” Nasheed said.
Ultimately, even the members who were vocal in their disapproval for certain parts of the spending bill voted to move it forward to the full Senate, where a vote is expected to take place Wednesday morning. The committee’s vote was unanimous, with one senator absent.
Some members expressed interest in adding amendments to the bill when it comes before the full chamber.
Sen. Bill Eigel, R-St. Charles, suggested adding an amendment that would condition any newly appropriated funds on schools in the area being fully in-person.
If any amendments are made to the bill, it would require new approval by the House before reaching the governor’s desk.