Missouri Gov. Mike Parson's State of the State speech Wednesday was hailed by some, but others criticized what he didn't say.
Presiding McDonald County Commissioner Bill Lant praised Parson for emphasizing infrastructure investment and workforce development. Parson, who wants to put $50 million in state money again this year into a cost-share program that could lead to additional road and bridge work, cited wrapping up funding for the Interstate 49 bypass around Bella Vista as one of the state's key transportation accomplishments during his speech in Jefferson City.
Dave Taylor, area engineer with the Missouri Department of Transportation, said recently that bids for the Missouri side of the bypass go out this month, and work is projected to begin this summer. The goal is for the bypass to be completed by the end of 2021 or early 2022.
Lant said the investment will mean industries and warehouses that cater to Walmart and other businesses across the state line will be more likely to set up shop in McDonald and southern Newton counties and that far Southwest Missouri will be a bedroom community for Northwest Arkansas.
"It is going to be gigantic for the region," Lant said of the bypass. "We're not getting a lot of new residents yet, but we're all waiting for it. Revenue, jobs, families — it is going to change everything for the better."
Lant, a former Republican lawmaker, also said he supported the governor's ongoing efforts to build the workforce with job training.
"Economic development — that's got to be No. 1," he said about the state's priorities.
However, Nicole Galloway, state auditor and Democratic gubernatorial challenger in 2020, criticized Parson for failing to take "immediate action to restore health insurance coverage to Missouri kids who were purged from the Children's Health Insurance Program through no fault of their own."
Since the start of 2018, enrollment in CHIP is down by more than 100,000 recipients, Galloway said.
"Gov. Parson has resisted calls to investigate, has offered excuses and now refuses to take accountability for the purge of eligible kids from their health insurance. This is unacceptable," she said in a statement.
She cited a Georgetown University study that found that Missouri had the second-steepest drop in CHIP enrollment in the country.
The American Cancer Society's Cancer Action Network also criticized the governor, noting that while Missouri has one of the highest adult smoking rates in the nation and that 11,000 people in the state will die from smoking-related diseases, "the state budget allocates virtually no additional funding for tobacco prevention and cessation programs."
Emily Kalmer, Missouri government relations director with the Cancer Action Network, said in a statement: "In October, the governor referred to the high rates of e-cigarette use among young people as ‘an epidemic’ and said that ‘it is critical that actions be taken to protect the health and well-being of Missouri’s youth.’ Gov. Parson missed an opportunity to take just that sort of action by failing to improve funding for evidence-based tobacco prevention and cessation programs."
Parson also mentioned plans to incorporate more mental health resources into public safety initiatives to help combat violent crime. Officials with the local National Alliance on Mental Illness in Joplin said Wednesday they applauded Parson’s emphasis on mental health in the state because it’s still an issue that needs continuing attention nationwide.
Diana Harper, vice president of NAMI board in Joplin, said more services need to be offered to law enforcement to de-escalate situations in which mental illness is a factor.
“They need more training, and they need to know what to do when they approach someone with mental health disorders like autism who can often have anxiety and depression," Harper said. "When a police officer approaches a car, it can set them in panic mode.”
Parson's budget proposal also includes $1 million to help eliminate the Missouri State Highway Patrol's rape kit backlog. A recent inventory conducted by the Missouri attorney general's office found more than 5,000 untested kits across the state's law enforcement agencies, including 601 kits — a number that's expected to grow — awaiting testing by the highway patrol's lab.
Louise Secker, development director for Joplin's Lafayette House, said she was "thrilled" with the governor's proposal. Lafayette House serves victims of substance abuse, domestic violence and sexual assault.
"When a victim goes through that process — not only the trauma of the assault but then the very detailed exam — it's for a reason," she said. "If the rape kit is sent off and nothing is ever done with it, that is so discouraging. If (the state) is creating funding to eliminate that backlog, that is excellent news for victims."
While the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry praised Parson's call for tort reform, and Democrats criticized his failure to lead on Medicaid expansion in the state, he may have won some support from future scholarship recipients.
Parson on Wednesday also announced an increase in funding for the state's Bright Flight and A+ Scholarship programs for college-bound students. The Bright Flight Program is a scholarship offered to Missouri high school students who score in the top 3% in the state on the ACT or SAT. It would get a $500,000 boost.
The A+ Scholarship program provides funds to high school students enrolled in a two-year vocational or technical school. It would get an additional $4.8 million.
Becca Diskin, director of financial aid at Missouri Southern State University, said the university currently has 56 students who receive an annual $3,000 Bright Flight scholarship. She said Bright Flight has only been partially funded in the past and that the increase could help fully fund it in the future.
"Bright Flight just funds the top 3%, and it's legislated to fund the top 5%, so there's still a group of students who aren't benefiting from those dollars," she said. "Hopefully, this will make an impact and allow us to have more students receive that scholarship because it's rewarding the really high achievers."
She added: "The A+ Scholarship is not one that directly impacts our students initially, but we do have a lot of students in this area who go to two-year colleges first and then transfer to Missouri Southern, so it's definitely a draw to help students stay with college choices in Missouri, which benefits all of us in the end."