JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Missouri Gov. Mike Parson in his State of the State speech Wednesday touted his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, even as an outbreak among lawmakers forced him to break tradition and switch the venue for his address.
“Time and time again, our administration has addressed the challenges of our communities and our state head on rather than leaving them for another day, another administration, or another generation,” Parson said.
Parson had been scheduled to deliver the annual speech Wednesday in the House chamber — as is tradition — with senators, judges and other executive officials joining him there.
But Parson spokeswoman Kelli Jones said the governor’s office was informed Wednesday morning by the House that he could not use the chamber because of COVID-19 concerns. Instead, the Republican governor delivered his speech in the Senate, which is smaller than the House chamber.
Republican leaders of the state House and Senate said in a joint statement that meeting in the upper chamber would ensure proper social distancing, although many guests in the galleries sat next to each other.
Not all senators wore masks while watching his speech on the Senate floor and many guests sitting in the Senate gallery didn’t either. Masks are not required in Missouri.
The House canceled all of its work last week following an outbreak of COVID-19 cases among members, but it returned to work this week. The Senate has remained in session, though Sen. Andrew Koenig said he has tested positive for COVID-19 and a couple other senators are quarantining.
Senate Democratic Minority Leader John Rizzo in a statement said Parson has grossly mismanaged the pandemic and decried him for not giving his address virtually.
“The Governor’s desire to give a big speech in-person is about vanity and optics,” Rizzo said. “He could easily give this address online from his office without putting anyone else’s health at risk.”
In his speech, Parson said his administration shipped more than 2 million gowns, 18 million gloves, 8 million surgical masks, 5 million N95 masks, and 1 million face shields to health care workers since the virus first hit the state last year.
He praised the state’s vaccine rollout plan in his speech and said more than 400,000 doses have been administered in the state so far.
According to data released Monday by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Missouri ranks last among states when it comes to the percentage of residents who have received an initial vaccine dose.
Parson unveiled a new state-run vaccination data website on Tuesday, citing concerns about the CDC data.
Parson in his address repeated his call for lawmakers to pass a bill shielding businesses, hospitals and health care workers from being sued for alleged misconduct related to the coronavirus pandemic.
“Missouri businesses, manufacturers, health care providers, schools, churches, and many other entities across the state did not hesitate to step up and help their communities in the fight against COVID-19,” Parson said. “None of these groups should be penalized for their efforts to help.”
He also asked the GOP-led Legislature to pass a bill to allow the state to collect sales taxes from online retailers that don’t have a physical presence in the state. Most states already have enacted such laws, but some Republican lawmakers in Missouri have resisted doing so because of a general opposition to tax increases.
Parson said he’s a strong supporter of lower taxes, but he said small businesses “are getting crushed right now because they cannot compete with huge online retailers.”
Parson’s other priorities for the upcoming year are in line with what he’s emphasized in the past: improving workforce development, education and infrastructure.
His budget proposal includes about $3.6 billion in core funding for public K-12 schools, which would meet minimum recommendations set in state law.
Parson also asked lawmakers to restore primary funding for public four-year colleges to pre-pandemic levels. He cut state funding for those schools when the coronavirus first struck and began tanking the state economy.
He pushed for more funding for a number of state scholarships, including ones geared to help high-achieving high schoolers and a grant program to encourage adults to get trained in high-demand fields.
Parson’s administration also said they’re planning to spend about $1.9 billion to expand Medicaid health insurance coverage to more low-income adults, as called for by voters last year.
The expansion is mostly funded by the federal government. The net cost to the state is estimated to be closer to $120 million next fiscal year.