Governor backs increased I-70 funding, no DEI restrictions in state budget

FILE - Vehicles travel along Interstate 70 near Odessa, Mo., Jan. 14, 2016. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel, File)
FILE - Vehicles travel along Interstate 70 near Odessa, Mo., Jan. 14, 2016. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel, File)

Missouri Gov. Mike Parson endorsed the Senate position on a number of budget items that has split the state Legislature's two chambers heading into conference negotiations.

The Republican governor voiced support for keeping diversity, equity and inclusion restrictions out of state budget bills and spending $2.8 billion to widen Interstate 70, both features of a budget plan supported by the Senate.

The House version of the budget includes language preventing tax dollars from being spent on diversity and inclusion initiatives and appropriates $859 million to widen 55 miles of I-70 in three parts of the state, Parson's initial proposal unveiled during his State of the State address.

Lawmakers have until Friday to get a state budget to the governor's desk. Four budget bills still require Senate approval before the two chambers conference over differences.

There were attempts to restrict spending on diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives in both chambers but only the House prevailed. Senators struck down a proposed amendment 14-18 after six hours of debate, which ended with nine Republicans joining nine Democrats to defeat the proposal.

The budget isn't an appropriate vehicle to enact diversity, equity and inclusion restrictions, some Republicans in the upper chamber argued, adding there was standalone legislation to accomplish the task.

"If you're going to do it, it's much better to do it legislative-wise," Parson told reporters Thursday. "If you're going to do it, I think that's where it needs to be, and I think we've been on that position all along."

Senate Appropriations Chair Lincoln Hough, R-Springfield, said the Senate's decision to leave diversity, equity and inclusion restrictions off the budget should remain after conference because the language could jeopardize funding for people in nursing homes and other vulnerable populations.

"I don't think that is a responsible action, to put in possible peril tens of, if not hundreds of millions of dollars worth of funding for vulnerable populations," Hough said.

"We're crafting a budget for the entire state. We're crafting a budget for 6.5 million people and when you insert uncertainty into that, I find it problematic," he continued. "And the majority of the folks, both Republicans and Democrats, in this 34-member body agree."

Sen. John Rizzo, an Independence Democrat and the minority floor leader, said he appreciated Republican leadership standing with Democrats to block an "adamant push" to get some diversity, equity and inclusion restrictions in the budget.

"Do I believe that's the end of the conversation? No," Rizzo said.

Differences on funding items will also be ironed out through the conference committee.

The Senate-backed budget totals approximately $4 billion more than the House-backed budget while still leaving about $2.5 billion in the bank.

"In my opinion, you see the things that Missouri families are talking about around their kitchen table over dinner in this budget," Hough said. "Infrastructure, education, workforce development, the things that in the long term return value to the state."

Differences largely rest with big-ticket items, Hough said, like funding I-70, construction of new mental health facilities, increases to teacher pay and investments in higher education facilities throughout the state.

Parson said he supports the increased spending to widen I-70 to three lanes statewide, describing his proposal as a starting point for the General Assembly.

"We wanted to at least build a foundation and then let the legislators go from there," he said. "If they wanted to add to that, we were fine to whatever that was going to be. We're not disappointed whatsoever."

The governor said he's glad to see lawmakers make long-term investments with taxpayer dollars and federal funds flowing to Missouri.

Senate President Pro Tem Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, described the budget approved by the Senate as "generational in its impact," adding the increase in spending on I-70 is "crazy not to support."

"So much in that budget is going to do a lot of good for a lot of people," Rowden said. "I think we did it responsibly, and we did it in a way that doesn't bankrupt the state when we inevitably come back down to Earth as it relates to revenues."