The path to passage for a bill spending almost $3 billion in federal COVID-19 relief was paved with money Thursday.
But about 20 minutes of discussion was all it took to win a 26-5 vote from the upper chamber after 18 new projects were added along with a $500 million set-aside from general revenue for a tax rebate program.
It was the smoothest passage of major legislation in the state Senate this year, where lengthy and bitter filibusters pitting factions of the Republican majority against each other have become normal.
Senate Minority Leader John Rizzo, D-Independence, said the easy passage was due to the work of Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Dan Hegeman and House Budget Committee Chairman Cody Smith.
Hegeman and Smith crafted a bill that satisfied lawmakers who wanted a project in their district and those who wanted to return part of the state’s record surplus to taxpayers.
“It always helps to be able to fill the potholes and problems,” Rizzo said.
The vote, along with votes on three other bills for construction and repair projects, sets up a final day of budget votes on Friday. Both chambers must vote a final time on the state’s $45 billion operating budget for the coming year and the House must accept the Senate versions of the four bills that spend another $4.3 billion.
Items added to the federal relief spending bill to smooth final passage include $83 million for a new Missouri State Highway Patrol academy building, $20 million for cell towers on public land sought by Gov. Mike Parson and $25 million for river port grants sought by the House.
The biggest items in the bill are $411 million for water infrastructure and lead pipe removal, $250 million for broadband infrastructure and $148 million for grants to federally qualified health centers, all recommended in Parson’s original plan.
The largest project that lawmakers rejected was Parson’s request for $70 million to build the 140-mile Rock Island trail in an old railroad corridor.
The Senate approved a tax credit program — up to $500 for individual filers and up to $1,000 for married couples — shortly before it voted on the budget bills. The program is similar to a plan developed by Smith but with two major changes: An income limit of $150,000 for individuals and $300,000 for couples to qualify and a cap of $500 million for all rebates.
Smith’s plan had a $1 billion cap and no income limits.
The plan was cut back for two reasons, Hegeman said. The first was to help it win passage, and the other was to make sure giving back $1 billion didn’t interrupt a phased-in income tax cut tied to revenue growth.
The bill using federal relief funds includes “a lot of transformative projects that will impact every part of the great state of Missouri,” Hegeman said during debate.
Both liberal and conservative members of the Senate praised the plan. Sen. Angela Mosley, D-St. Louis, thanked Hegeman for including $6 million for demolition of the vacant Jamestown Mall in north St. Louis County.
“This mall has been vacant for about six or seven years,” Mosley said.
St. Louis County has allocated $6 million from its share of the American Rescue Plan funds to match the state’s contribution.
Sen. Rick Brattin, R-Harrisonville and a member of the conservative caucus, also found things he liked in the bill.
During negotiations on the state operating budget, some lawmakers raised concerns that the source of the money — President Joe Biden’s relief package known as the American Rescue Plan — could spell trouble with members of the conservative caucus.
“I am not a fan of the ARPA funds, but if there is going to be a use of it…” Brattin said.
“Let’s use it for projects that benefit our communities for years to come,” Hegeman said, finishing Brattin’s thought.
The bulging state treasury, with a surplus expected to be well in excess of $3 billion by the end of June, helped ease any concerns, Hegeman said.
The tax rebate plan is a good use of a portion of that money, he said.
“A lot of us believe that the government should have enough to run the services but we don’t need to be building surpluses,” Hegeman said.
In the Senate Appropriations Committee, members added 69 line items to the relief spending bill and four of the 10 items added to Parson’s plan by the House received no funding. In the final bill, only two House projects, and two of the original Senate projects, were not funded.
After satisfying Smith’s desire for a tax cut, winning over other lawmakers was making sure their local needs were met, Hegeman said.
“All of our community have needs and so we addressed that,” he said, “some of them indirectly through the buckets of money we have and some of it directly through individual line-item appropriations.”