New Report on Federal Relief Funds in Missouri
Are Missouri politicians the rare breed that don’t spend money when it’s handed to them . . . or are they on the verge of a year-end shopping spree?
The Missouri state government has $1.5 billion leftover from CARES Act federal relief funds and must spend it by December 31 or lose the money, despite scores of individuals and business owners that still need help. The Governor plans to spend $1.3 billion on measures such as personal protection equipment, school lunch programs, and unemployment insurance, among others.
It’s important to note that these funds have several strings attached. The money must be spent on expenses incurred due to COVID-19—it can’t just be used to fill unrelated budget gaps.
According to a new report from the state auditor, the Missouri state government had received a cumulative total of a little over $3 billion in federal relief funds through the end of October. County governments also received relief funds. Jackson County and St. Louis County received $123 million and $173 million, respectively, directly from the federal government due to meeting population requirements. The Missouri Legislature also chose to send $521 million to the remaining counties and St. Louis City, based on population proportions.
Of this combined $817 million sent to counties, roughly $543 million remains unspent, not including planned purchases. This is in addition to the state government’s remaining $1.5 billion.
Why hasn’t the money been spent, and what should be done with it?
If it really is the case that the money isn’t needed, then the funds should be returned to the federal government, and our state and municipal leaders should be commended for declining to help themselves to taxpayer money.
However, if it is needed, it should be spent wisely. For example, some money could be used to support businesses that struggled or closed during state and county-mandated shutdowns. Jefferson City imposed a statewide lockdown from early April to early May, and many counties continued with further lockdowns. Unemployment benefits for affected workers may well be appropriate, but they should be accompanied by relief to the business owners who were deprived of the opportunity to operate (and to employ those workers) for significant parts of the year.
Parents of school-aged children also deserve consideration. The pandemic has led to school closures and a switch to distance learning that caught many if not most school districts unprepared. Statewide, public school enrollment is down by nearly 25,000 students this year as parents struggle to find alternatives to their assigned public schools for their children. These parents would be facing a daunting task under any circumstances, but consider the parents whose incomes have been reduced by pandemic-related closures and who are also trying desperately to keep their children from losing a year of education. Shouldn’t some of the federal relief money be used to help them pay for tutoring, private-school tuition, or other resources?
Finally, policymakers should keep in mind that the challenging and complicated process of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout is now ramping up. It’s not going to be easy, and without a solid plan for vaccine distribution, it’s unlikely to go well. Does Missouri have a plan? If so, what kinds of resources will be needed to carry it out?
It’s hard to say what would be the very best use of the still-unspent portion of the federal relief money because of the number of variables in play. But if we can’t spend it in a way that provides meaningful help to pandemic-affected businesses and workers—if we can’t use it to help educate children whose school districts have let them down—and if we can’t use it to make the vaccine rollout as fast and effective as possible—then we should give it back to the federal government. It would be both injurious and insulting to Missourians who have suffered through months of this pandemic if their elected officials leave nearly two billion dollars of money unspent until the final weeks of the year only to squander it out of fear of leaving it on the table.