Springfield, MO

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I-44 work gets funding, sports betting fails again

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While the 2023 session of the Missouri General Assembly led to passage of a roughly $50 billion budget that awaits approval from Gov. Mike Parson, local and state officials have mixed reviews on how well the past several months went in Jefferson City.

The session, which wrapped May 12, saw some high-profile investments receive funding, among them a $2.8 billion plan to fully expand Interstate 70 to three lanes across the state, as well as a $300 million psychiatric hospital in Kansas City. Additionally, legislators approved a $28 million facelift for a five-mile stretch of Interstate 44 in Springfield. Another $20 million was approved for an environmental study of the entirety of I-44 in Missouri, said Sen. Lincoln Hough, R-Springfield, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee.

“When the environmental study work is done on I-44, you could be looking at a similar rebuilding proposal out of the legislature that we just did for I-70,” he said. “It’s kind of two birds with one stone. We can do the construction on I-70 now while simultaneously doing the environmental study work that is necessary before an I-44 rebuild would occur.”

Legislators also approved $29.4 million to provide an annual baseline teacher salary of $38,000. The program existed in the fiscal 2023 budget, but the state only provided 70% of funding and required a local match. This year, the legislature invested an additional $7.6 million to eliminate the need for a local match.

“We did a lot of good things,” Hough said, noting he spends “an inordinate amount of time on the state budget.”

Officials with the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry said the session had its share of successes, such as business-related bills that aimed to build and retain a skilled workforce, as well as improve access to quality health care. However, the organization also shared criticism in a news release of what it deemed political posturing and Senate dysfunction, which it said stood in the way of moving Missouri forward.

“Reforming Missouri’s lengthy statute of limitations, which currently tilts the judicial system against businesses and hurts the state’s economic competitiveness, was a business community priority that was stymied in the Senate by trial attorney-backed legislators,” chamber officials said in the release.

Bets off
Although sports betting is legal in 37 states and the District of Columbia, Missouri isn’t one of them. Proposed legislation to legalize it in the state again fell short this session, largely because of the ongoing debate about video lottery terminals, which keep getting tied to the sports betting issue, Hough said.

“It’s unfortunate,” he said of the failed legislation. 

While noting he doesn’t bet on sports, Hough said he has friends who do, and they regularly ask him about the issue.

Hough also said the ongoing inability to pass tort reform legislation is another disappointment.

“It was again frustrating this year that we couldn’t get that done,” he said.

Another issue that failed to cross the finish line would have halted purchases of Missouri farmland by foreign would-be owners.

The Missouri House passed a bill that would have said no more than 0.5% of Missouri’s farmland could be owned by a foreign government or company. Currently, up to 1% of the state’s agricultural land can be owned by foreign entities. In the Senate, lawmakers voted to ban foreign countries and companies from buying agricultural land, but not for potential use of nonfarming purposes. In the end, differences between the two legislative chambers couldn’t be worked out before session’s end.

Freshman perspective
Melanie Stinnett, R-Springfield, just completed her first session in the House of Representatives, where she serves District 133. Her involvement in the House included serving as vice chair of the health care reform committee and as a member of the professional registration and licensing committee.

“I spent a lot of time just learning the processes and even the staff within the House. For me, it was a really great experience,” she said. “I learned a lot and was able to move some of my priority legislation effectively.”

As vice president of therapy services at The Arc of the Ozarks and former owner of TheraCare Outpatient Services, which she sold to the nonprofit last year, Stinnett said health care is a passion of hers. Improving health care access and service is among her legislative priorities, she added.

Stinnett said she was part of an effort to successfully expand postpartum Medicaid coverage to one year from 60 days.

“This is one of the priorities that we had to make sure we’re providing quality and effective care for women after pregnancy,” she said. “That was a really important piece for me that we were able to get across the finish line that I’m really proud of.”

Two other personal victories she pointed to were bills related to individuals with disabilities. One of those adjusts income guidelines to the Ticket to Work Health Assurance Program that allows participants to make more money while still maintaining medical coverage. Another bill establishes the Missouri Employment First Act, which, in part, ensures state agencies are targeting and prioritizing competitive integrated employment options within communities for individuals with disabilities.

Stinnett cited no specific disappointments from her first term, but admitted she was ready for the end of session before the General Assembly reconvenes in January.

“The break gives us time to come back to our communities and talk with them about what matters to them, learn how they feel about the changes that have been made and go back renewed with some new information and new tasks to accomplish,” she said.

Like Stinnett, Hough said he’s ready for a break.

“It’s an honor to do the job, but we work for hours and hours a day trying to foster compromises and trying to get things done for the people we all represent,” he said.

Still, Hough said he’s eager for the governor to sign the budget bill, an action he expects will happen by early next month, as the state’s fiscal year ends June 30. 

“He’ll take action, I’m sure,” he said. “I imagine his staff are combing through the (appropriation) bills right now.”


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