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Parson lauds infrastructure projects at chamber event

Governor says I-44 work is in the plans over the coming years

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Just a few weeks after signing a record-high $51.8 billion state budget, Gov. Mike Parson was in Springfield to spotlight some wins from this year’s legislative session, which also lined up with priorities of his administration.

The governor devoted much of his speech at the annual Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce State of the State event July 26 to projects and initiatives funded in the budget, such as infrastructure, education and workforce development. While it includes expected general revenue of $15.2 billion for fiscal 2024, Parson said his administration has received criticism for the budget’s record size, even though he vetoed over $555 million in budgetary requests.

“While we fully agree that investments in the people of Missouri have grown, we are using our revenue surplus to target areas that have long been neglected or overlooked in infrastructure and workforce development,” he said, speaking from Great Southern Bank Arena. “That means investing in low volume roads and bridges, broadband, child care, mental health, improving state government, supporting law enforcement and the list goes on and on.

“I dare any politician to say these priorities aren’t necessary and don’t work.”

Interstate investments
Chief among infrastructure investments in this year’s budget is nearly $2.8 billion to expand Interstate 70 across the state. While construction on that project will take place well outside the Springfield area, it will be beneficial statewide, Parson said.

“The $2.8 billion to rebuild and expand I-70 into six lanes across our entire state from St. Louis to Kansas City was a dream idea that not too many years ago nobody thought that was even possible,” he said. “Yet we have now started the process and now we’re going to complete that project. This project will create business and job opportunities for Missourians everywhere, no matter what part of the state you live in.”

Notable among vetoes of local projects in the budget was $28 million that was intended for a facelift of a five-mile stretch of Interstate 44. Acknowledging he’s heard criticism about that veto, Parson said plenty of funding is in the works for I-44.

“Let me set the record straight,” he said. “This year’s Statewide Transportation Improvement Program is nearly $14 billion. To put that in perspective, before I became governor [in 2018], the five-year STIP plan was funded at $2.5 billion. Through thisplan, we are funding the I-44 widening project from Glenstone [Avenue] to [Highway] 65.

“We are funding an I-44 environmental study for a six-lane widening and improvement plan along the entirety of the interstate, which must be completed before we can move forward,” he said, referencing the $20 million study approved in the budget. “And we are making critical interchange improvements, bridge replacements along I-44. That’s over $125 million for I-44, and to lay the groundwork for larger projects in the future.”

Estimating the Springfield area will receive over $500 million for infrastructure projects over the next five years, Parson said that includes 530 miles of road and nearly 60 bridges that will be repaired or replaced.

“That’s on top of the 570 miles of road and nearly 45 bridges that have been improved from the nearly $250 million our administration has invested over the past five years in the Springfield area,” he said.

With so much infrastructure work planned, Parson said he already expects complaints from motorists next year about there being too many construction zones.

“I’ll tell you what, I’ll gladly take that criticism all day long,” he said. “Because we’re moving forward in this state and building a future that we can all be proud of.”

Budget reflection
Parson also pushed back on criticism that his 201 line-item vetoes in this year’s budget left a lot of cash on the table, as the state had an $8 billion surplus. He said $5 billion of that surplus already has been obligated, adding the state needs to be fiscally responsible. In his vetoes, Parson noted a desire to maintain the state’s AAA bond rating and ensure a balanced budget among factors.

“There is no extra money and the budget this year was over $1.7 billion more than what we recommended, including over $700 million in ongoing core spending, which means that goes on forever,” he said at the event. “We must never stop being responsible, especially when it comes to the taxpayer dime.”

During his speech, Parson noted a $78.5 million funding increase approved by state lawmakers in the budget for child care providers, as well as $82 million to establish pre-kindergarten programs in public schools and private providers. However, he said after the event that he considers the child care investments merely “a start.”

“It’s very difficult to find child care. It’s expensive when you do find it, and for your everyday workers out there, it’s very difficult to afford it,” he said. “I don’t want the worker staying at home because there is no place for adequate care for their kids where they feel safe. So, there’s a lot more to do on that.”

Ozarks Coca-Cola/Dr Pepper Botting Co.’s Sally Hargis, who attended the chamber event, said she was glad to hear Parson address child care. Hargis is chair and vice president of the Springfield-based business, which employs roughly 835 companywide.

“It really does have a lot to do with workforce. The focus on child care is important,” she said, adding if employees lack affordable and quality options for their children, it can impact productivity.

While she couldn’t cite child care worries of any of her company’s employees, Hargis said in general it’s a challenge for parents to find and afford.

“It’s really just to give parents the ability to focus on work while not having to worry about their children while there,” she said.

The average cost for an infant in Missouri center-based child care was $10,555 in 2021, according to a study by advocacy organization Child Care Aware of America.

In his speech, Parson also touched on workforce training programs such as the Fast Track Workforce Incentive Grant, which pays tuition and fees for nontraditional students going into high-demand career fields. Hargis said for companies such as hers that are regularly hiring, the programs are important to draw new employees.

“You won’t see a day go by that you won’t see a posting for an opening (at Ozarks Coca-Cola),” she said.

Acknowledging Missouri will be deep into an election year around this time next year, Parson took time to recognize several politicians in attendance at the event. They included Lt. Gov. Mike Kehoe, who is among candidates seeking the governor’s seat next year. Term limits prevent Parson from seeking another term. Aside from Kehoe, Republican candidates in the gubernatorial race include Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft and state Sen. Bill Eigel, R-Charles County. Missouri Rep. Crystal Quade, D-Springfield, is currently the lone Democrat candidate after announcing her bid for the office last month.

No endorsements were forthcoming from Parson at the event, noting afterwards that his focus is more on next year’s legislative session.

“I just want good, qualified people in the positions that will take care of all Missourians,” he said. “I may get engaged, I may not. It’s way too early to make that decision.”

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