Parson believes his budget plan addresses fundamental Missouri needs
During his State of the State address last week, Gov. Mike Parson announced his budgetary vision for Missouri.
His plan includes money to widen Interstate 70 in three places and fully fund the state’s K-12 education formula and school transportation, as well as another round of raises for state employees.
St. Louis Public Radio’s Sarah Kellogg spoke with Parson this week about his plan for the state and why he thinks it’s generally received broad support.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.
Sarah Kellogg: Why did you choose to propose to invest in the areas that you did during your State of the State?
Gov. Mike Parson: I think it all goes back to the basic message we had when I first became governor — workforce development and infrastructure.
We realize how key those things are for the future of our state and what it really means to everyday people, and from workforce development, you can take education, day care, health care, all of that falls under that umbrella and then have the infrastructure in place to be able to build around that, whether that's broadband, whether that's highways, bridges, airports.
Kellogg: Looking at the big-ticket item, $859 million to expand I-70 in three spots in the state, what do you say to critics who feel it only helps those who live near I-70?
Parson: You had the same scenario when we did a lot of the rural bridges. We did 250 rural bridges and everybody says, "Hey, the governor just spent on rural areas."
And the reality of it is, that’s [I-70] where the most traffic volume is if you look at St. Louis, Columbia, Kansas City. But the bottom line is, I firmly believe once you get those major areas done, those centers all done and completed, you're going to connect the dots.
Kellogg: Last year it was pretty much said that fully funding school transportation, which hadn't been done in over 20 years, was going to be a one-year thing, and maybe not to count on next year, and now it looks like you want this done annually. Why did you make that decision?
Parson: Well most certainly because it's critical that you get kids back and forth from school.
I think also by creating that new transportation money, and again, continuing to fully fund the foundation formula with an additional $117 million, no school out there should be having a budget problem.
If it's a budget problem, it's self-inflicted, because we're totally funding the programs. We’re totally funding transportation, and that should have freed up a lot of money for them to do lots of other things within their areas, whether that's teacher pay, whether that's other areas of education. But look right now, the education institutions are getting what they need to do business.
Kellogg: Also related to schools, the State of the State is largely a budgetary speech, but on the topic of school safety, $50 million in grants, why not push for more on a policy front when it comes to school safety?
Parson: Well, one, I think you got to figure out, $50 million is a lot of money to put in school safety. It's about keeping kids safe, keeping teachers safe, keeping administration safe.
And how do we do that? And what did we learn from St. Louis that we can do better, the way things occur when a tragedy does happen? I think you always, and this the law enforcement in me, when a tragic event happens, you should always go back and reevaluate everything that occurred, why it occurred, is there something you can do that’s better? And I think it’s an unfortunate tragedy, but we need to learn from that.
Kellogg: In that case, it appears that a red flag law might have helped. They went to the police and said this person is a danger to themselves or others and law enforcement wasn’t able to take that gun away. Is there any version of a red flag law that you think could pass? Like the Republican state government in Florida did?
Parson: I don't see that in Missouri. I think one, with the red flag law, it's more of a political statement. And that's what drives everybody apart, when you start going down those roads.
If you want to see common ground, like what Florida and some other states have looked at, I think there's always a discussion to be had, the way things you can do better. But I think when you start tagging things with those political hot-button issues, you automatically are in the wrong direction. You're going to be divisive just like the Second Amendment, what do you aim to gain out of it? And for me, it's always about how do you really make things better?
Kellogg: You set a March 1 deadline for the state pay raises. Do you have confidence that the legislature is going to meet that?
Parson: I do believe they will. I mean, we're 7,000 employees down and those are not fluff numbers, those are just the reality of it.
I'll give you an example, the children division, where it should be like for one caseworker, 16 cases, it’s probably one to 40. That's not a good scenario for anybody and to act like that's not happening, when I know the reality of it is, we got to fix it and these are some of the things we can do. So, I hope the legislators understand how important that is and really how important it is to keep the good people in the positions where they are.
Kellogg: Many times during the State of the State, Democrats stood up and applauded quicker than Republicans did on some of your proposals. What do you make of this?
Parson: I think it goes back to just there's so many things that we all agree on as people that live in this state, and it's not always about all the things we totally disagree on, all the hot-button issues.
When you go talking about workforce and you talk about education, health care, infrastructure, those are not Democrat/Republican issues. Those are issues that are good for the state, and it's good for everyday people, basic fundamentals.
People want to be safe when they leave their homes. They want to feel like they're safe when their kids go to school. They want the kids to have an education and they want people to go into the workforce. And I think that's what the State of the State was really addressing. It wasn't addressing what we disagree on, it was addressing the things we agree on. So, let's get those things done.
Kellogg: There was criticism from some Republicans that the state is spending too much money with the last budget and with this budget. What is your response to that?
Parson: I think if you believe in the philosophy of what we do, I would say when they make those kinds of statements: We believe if you invest in workforce, if you invest in businesses, if you invest in education, and you get people in the workforce, and you bring businesses to the state of Missouri, your economy grows, so your revenues are going to grow. And you have to keep that in perspective and not say you're gotta cut, cut cut.
So, there is a balance to it. You just can't go out there and just spend money all the time, and I don't think we do.