The biggest news coming out of Jefferson City in the last month is a major shakeup in Governor Mike Parson’s cabinet. On October 12, Governor Parson announced several changes to the heads of various state departments and the Office of Administration.
The Office of Administration Commissioner, Sarah Steelman, was abruptly asked to resign early on October 12. The commissioner post is one of the top-level positions in state government and oversees most aspects of day-to-day operations of the state including the budget and construction projects. Steelman had been in the position since early 2017 when she was appointed by then-Governor Eric Greitens. She is a former state Senator and state Treasurer and has been a political fixture in Jefferson City and across the state for many years. The Department of Revenue Director Ken Zellers will take Steelman’s place as the interim commissioner, while Revenue’s general counsel Joseph Plaggenberg will take over for Zellers as the Director of the Department of Revenue.
Jennifer Tidball, the acting director of the Department of Social Services, is also out. Gov. Parson announced that his Deputy Chief of Staff Robert Knodell will take the helm of Social Services effective October 18. Tidball, who had stepped into the vacant position in 2019, will become the department’s chief operating officer. She had been mired in controversy as several lawmakers laid blame on her for the department’s handling of missing children in foster care and alleged abuses at unlicensed reform schools in the state.
The Department of Mental Health Director Mark Stringer announced his retirement, effective at the end of the year. Stringer had been in the post since 2015 and had served more than 34 years in the mental health field, with 24 years at DMH. He has received numerous awards for his innovation and leadership, serving on national boards, testifying before Congress, and advocating for those with mental illness and developmental disabilities. The department’s Deputy Director, Valerie Huhn, will temporarily take the helm at the end of October as Stringer takes leave until his official retirement date at the end of the year.
Also departing state government is Department of Economic Development Director Rob Dixon, whose last day was October 22. Dixon left for a position with Ameren as the Director of Community and Economic Development. He has been in his current position since 2017. Deputy Director Maggie Kost will become acting director upon Dixon’s departure.
In other news, the first phase of the new fuel tax in Missouri is now in effect, marked by a 2.5 cent increase per gallon at the pump. There will be subsequent increases each fiscal year until the total additional tax reaches 12.5 cents per gallon on July 1, 2025. The increase is a result of the passage of SB262 from the last legislative session. Once the tax is fully implemented, the measure is expected to raise an additional $375 million per year for state highways, as well as an additional $138 million per year for cities and counties to deal with transportation issues. Taxpayers will have an opportunity to recoup the extra taxes they have paid by filling out a form from the Department of Revenue, which will include the number of gallons purchased, details on the vehicle, and amount of extra taxes paid. Refund applications must be submitted between July 1 and September 30 each year. The Department of Revenue will have 45 days to process the form before having to pay interest to the taxpayer. The Missouri legislation mirrors a similar measure from South Carolina which was passed in 2017.
New applications for Missouri’s expanded Medicaid program are beginning to be processed through the Department of Social Services. Over 4,000 low-income applicants have been enrolled thus far. Over 17,000 new applications were initially received under the expanded program. Officials estimate approximately 275,000 Missourian’s are eligible. The expansion comes after the voter approved ballot measure was tied up in a legislative budget fight last session. That led to the courts issuing an order that the measure was indeed constitutional, and the state must allow the expansion to move forward. The measure provides health care coverage for single individuals who make less than $18,000 per year of a family of four who makes up to $36,750 per year.
Lawmakers are still busy in their home districts with fundraising events and preparing for the next legislative session. Prefiling of legislation will begin on December 1. We will continue to keep you updated on all political happenings in Jefferson City and around the state. Nikki Strong, Strong Consulting Group.