Gov. Mike Parson discusses an improved work climate in Missouri at Juanita K. Hammons Hall for the Performing Arts.
Photo provided by Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce
Gov. Mike Parson discusses an improved work climate in Missouri at Juanita K. Hammons Hall for the Performing Arts.

State of State goes virtual

Posted online

Gov. Mike Parson spoke July 29 at the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce’s third annual State of the State event in an environment decidedly different.

Due to safety concerns amid the coronavirus pandemic, chamber officials decided late July 24 to turn the previously scheduled in-person event to a livestream. Only a couple dozen people – media, chamber staff and board members – were allowed inside Missouri State University’s Juanita K. Hammons Hall for the Performing Arts to view the governor speak about the state’s response to COVID-19 and a wrap-up of the 2020 legislative session.

Acknowledging the economic and public health challenges of the past few months brought on by the pandemic, Parson boasted of the state’s response and his confidence that Missouri is on the road to recovery. He said for the first two months of the year, he was focused on addressing workforce development and infrastructure issues – two key areas of emphasis for his administration.

“Needless to say, when COVID-19 hit Missouri in March, everything changed,” he said.

In recovery
Unemployment in Missouri rose to 10.1% in May, seasonally adjusted, from 3.2% in February, just before the pandemic impacted the economy. However, Parson said Missouri bounced back in June, as the jobless rate dropped to 7.9%. The U.S. unemployment rate was 11.1% in June, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

He said the state gained over 71,000 jobs in June. “For May and June combined, Missouri recovered approximately one-third of the jobs lost in March and April,” he said. “Missouri’s economy is recovering.”

Parson cited several recent economic development wins for the state – and two are projects in Marshfield. An $8 million expansion of Armstrong World Industries Inc. will add 130 jobs, and a $4.9 million investment in the Tyler Pipe Co. plant will bring on another 75 jobs.

Parson also touted the Show Me Strong Recovery Plan, announced in April to gradually reopen the state’s economy, following a temporary shutdown in response to COVID-19’s spread.

One of the pillars was rapidly expanding testing capacity, which he said has grown to 90,000 tests per week from around 4,000 weekly in March. “Knowing what we know now, we are much better prepared to deal with COVID-19 going forward,” Parson said.

Christina Angle, chief financial officer of Springfield Underground parent company Erlen Group, was among those viewing the virtual event. She said reopening the economy was vital, and she supports Parson leaving those decisions in the hands of individual communities.

“It’s a diverse state in terms of population density, and types of problems that each community is dealing with,” she said. “He is interested in meeting people to share best practices and best information, but not dictating it as a one-size-fits-all solution.”

Shortened session
COVID-19 concerns also considerably shortened the 2020 legislative session. However, legislators in May passed a roughly $35.3 billion fiscal 2021 budget. Parson slashed close to $450 million from the budget, which administration officials said was necessary to balance it. Most of the cuts were to education and social services.

“The legislative session looked very different this year. However, there were still several pieces of legislation passed,” he said.

House Bill 1768 extended the expiration of the Missouri Broadband Grant Program by six years to 2027. The legislature appropriated $5 million for the program in 2019, with the state Department of Economic Development awarding over $3 million in grants for fiscal 2020. “The digital divide in rural Missouri prohibits growth in many sectors of our economy,” Parson said.

Broadband is a topic that caught the attention of Brian Hammons, president of Stockton-based black walnut processor Hammons Products Co., who watched the livestreamed event.

“We’re in a rural county, Cedar County, and we also connect a lot with small businesses in a lot of counties in Missouri and other areas, too,” he said. “The importance of broadband is made even bigger with COVID and the needs for people to connect.”

‘Not anti-mask’
As businesses continue to work remotely and schools prepare to go back in session this month, statewide COVID-19 numbers continue to rise. As of July 29, confirmed cases of the virus in Missouri tallied 46,750 – up 9.6% over the past week, according to the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services. The Springfield-Greene County Health Department reported July 29 the local county’s confirmed cases reached 1,128.

In southwest Missouri, Springfield, Joplin and Branson have mandated masks in public places. Parson said he has no intention of issuing a statewide order like governors in over 30 states.

“The local levels should be taking it upon themselves,” he said, “to go out and regulate it. They know what’s best for their communities.

“I’m not anti-mask. ... I’m anti-mandates. I just don’t think it’s the right way to go.”