Investing in Rural Missouri

This week, the focus in the Missouri Senate shifted to the state operating budget for Fiscal Year 2024. As a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, I spent the week reviewing 14 appropriations bills passed by the House of Representatives. During “mark-up,” we looked at each line of every budget bill to determine whether we would advance the House appropriations, defer to the governor’s requests or express our own budget recommendations.
Mark-up is not the final step in the budget process. There are still three more actions remaining: votes on the Senate changes, resolution of differences between the House and Senate budgets by conference committees and final passage by both chambers. That all needs to happen prior to 6 p.m. on May 5.
In 2022, the General Assembly faced a truly historic and unusual dilemma. Thanks to a strong economy in Missouri and an unprecedented influx of federal funds, the state had plenty of money. I proud to say the Legislature responded to the challenge with responsible stewardship and wise investment in Missouri’s future. We face a similar situation again this year, as many of the funds we received last year were set aside and are now available for additional investments, both in the state and in the 33rd Senatorial District.
Last year, the Missouri Legislature made the historic move to raise starting teacher pay to $38,000 by providing grants to local school districts. We also fully funded the state’s portion of school transportation costs for the first time in years. The increased transportation funding was especially welcome in rural school districts, where money that could be used in the classroom often gets diverted to pay for fuel and bus maintenance. I’m happy to report the budget approved by the Senate this year continues fully funding our school transportation obligations.
New this year is funding to help students deal with mental health and stress issues. The Fiscal Year 2024 budget includes $3 million to fund a pilot program that will allow students to access mental health care services immediately via their mobile devices. I championed this program during the appropriations process and I’m happy to see it included in the budget.
As a member of the Board of Trustees at College of the Ozarks and former graduate, I’ve always been a champion for hard work and strong ethics. During the two years I’ve served on the Appropriations Committee, I’ve advocated for a program to support character education in our schools. I believe it is critical educators are trained to instill leadership skills and strong moral character in the children they teach. This year’s budget doubles funding for this program, with a $450,000 appropriation.
One of the greatest challenges facing those of us who live in rural areas is access to health care. Rural folks rely on Federally Qualified Health Centers, rural health clinics and smaller hospitals. Without these facilities, many residents of the 33rd Senatorial District would have to drive hours to a distant city just to receive health care. It’s critical for us to keep our health care local to keep costs down and improve health outcomes. The FY 2024 budget the Senate advanced this week includes one-time funding for two area hospitals to make capital improvements. Ozarks Healthcare will receive $3 million to expand operations in West Plains and Mountain View, while Texas County Memorial Hospital is budgeted to receive $300,000 to fund a new helipad.
A record surplus in Missouri’s budget also allows us to begin to address persistent shortcomings in the state’s infrastructure. Due to our location in the center of the United States, Missouri has a natural advantage over other states, but only if we capitalize on investment in infrastructure. I’m sure many of you have heard about the governor’s call to begin rebuilding Interstate 70, but our investment in roads and bridges extends beyond that critical corridor. The FY 2024 budget continues a $100 million investment in rural roads first enacted last year. The Senate version of the budget also includes money to study eventual improvements to Interstate 44. During mark-up, I was able to secure $5 million to begin the process of eventually expanding Highway 63 to four lanes all the way through the state. These improvements are not just a safety issue, but also key to expanding economic opportunities in our state.
I’m proud of the investments the Legislature is making in Missouri, and in the 33rd Senatorial District. I also appreciate the opportunity to be so closely involved in the budget process and ensure our tax dollars are spent wisely, while still producing a balanced budget. There are still a few steps left in the budget process, but based on what I’ve seen so far, I’m confident Missouri’s best days continue to be ahead of us.
It is my honor to serve the residents of Douglas, Howell, Ozark, Shannon, Stone, Taney and Texas counties in the Missouri Senate, and it’s always a pleasure to hear from friends and family back home. If I can help you in any way, please call my Capitol Office at 573-751-1882. You can also visit my webpage at, on Facebook: @SenatorKarlaEslinger, or follow me on Twitter: @seneslingermo.
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