By Thomas Coulter
Columbia Missourian

JEFFERSON CITY — In his first State of the State address, Gov. Mike Parson proposed borrowing $351 million to improve Missouri bridges as well as creating new job-training programs to assist workers throughout the state.

Governor Mike Parson

Before a joint session of the Missouri General Assembly at the Capitol, Parson outlined the priorities of his proposed $30 billion budget, which will be sent to committees for consideration.

“While some of our priorities may not be the same, … when we try to make everything a priority, the fact is nothing is truly a priority,” Parson said. “So let me be crystal clear: Cultivating and training our workforce for high-demand jobs and investing in critical infrastructure are the priorities we must address this session.”

The proposal for the $351 million bond package to repair about 250 bridges comes after Missouri voters rejected an increase to the state’s fuel tax in November that would have freed up money to fund roads and bridges. Parson had been a supporter of the tax increase.

“Over the years, we have seen proposals go before the voters and fail, but this cannot and does not mean we are expected to do nothing,” Parson said.

The proposed bonds would be paid over the next 15 years, likely beginning in the fiscal year 2020 or 2021. Annual payments would be $30 million, according to budget director Dan Haug.

Senate President Pro Tem Dave Schatz, R-Sullivan, said infrastructure improvements are necessary to move Missouri forward.

“Addressing it this way is a little different than what we’ve done in the past, but after we failed with this on the ballot in the November election, it doesn’t take the problem away,” said Schatz, who has served as chair of both the Senate and House transportation committees. “You have to find a way to take care of the system that we have.”

The budget also calls for $5 million to be invested in broadband funding, which will be paired with $255 million in federal funds that Missouri has secured to expand internet infrastructure throughout the state.

“We currently have about 10 school districts and many rural communities that lack access to high speed broadband, and that is unacceptable,” Parson said.

The governor also unveiled new workforce-training programs that would cost nearly $75 million in total. These programs would provide funding for adults working toward degrees in high-needs skills and training for workers at existing businesses.

“We are well into the 21st century, and, yes, extra levels of education are needed to meet the demands of our workforce,” Parson said. “These jobs are going to provide higher wages, which will benefit Missouri families.”

Parson drew notable bipartisan applause while discussing the need for re-entry programs for those leaving the criminal justice system and alternative sentencing.

“As governor, I am not interested in building more prisons,” he said.

The governor then announced plans within the Department of Corrections to move the current staff and inmates from Crossroads Correctional Facility to Western Missouri Correctional Facility, while caretakers will maintain the Crossroads prison. The plan involves no layoffs and helps provide funding for a pay raise for correctional officers.

After the address, Democratic leaders expressed concerns about fiscal responsibility and the governor’s ability to meet his ambitious goals. During a press conference after the speech, Rep. Kip Kendrick, D-Columbia, said he was concerned about how a potential economic downturn could affect the proposed budget.

“We aren’t the federal government,” Kendrick said. “We can’t pass tax cuts then blow up the deficit.”

After former Gov. Eric Greitens did not reveal his budget concurrently with his State of the State address the last two years, Parson’s decision to do so reflected a return to the norm in the Capitol.

“I will commit to you that bold ideas and tough challenges will not be something we shy away from, but my administration is willing to work with this legislature in a disciplined and focused way,” Parson said. “Together, we can achieve big results and lay a solid foundation for our state’s future.”

Missourian reporter Abigail Shaw contributed to this report. Supervising editor is Mark Horvit.