Missouri lawmakers are using the state’s roughly $50 billion spending plan to wade into culture war battles over diversity programs and to cut public library funding as part of a battle over book content.
The budget, approved by the Missouri House on Thursday, includes Republican-led amendments to every state agency’s budget that prevent state money from paying for staff, vendors, consultants and programs “associated with diversity, equity (and) inclusion.”
House Republicans also agreed to cut the entire $4.5 million in state aid that libraries were slated to get next year in retaliation for a lawsuit on behalf of two library groups challenging a new state law that bans certain materials in school libraries.
Thursday’s budget debate was largely dominated by the fight over the amendments barring diversity programs and staff. It illustrated an ongoing push by Republicans nationally to target initiatives designed to attract and retain minority hires.
House Democrats on Thursday excoriated Republicans for hijacking the state’s spending plan with the amendments targeting diversity programs. They said it would have far-reaching consequences, pointing to numerous companies with diversity initiatives that would be barred from working with the state.
“We won’t be able to have Coke in our vending machines, because I assure you Coca-Cola has diversity, equity and inclusion in their mission,” state Rep. Peter Merideth, a St. Louis Democrat, told reporters. “We wouldn’t be able to have our lights on because Ameren has diversity, equity and inclusion in their mission and staff associated with it. It’s absolutely bonkers.”
State Rep. Doug Richey, an Excelsior Springs Republican who successfully added the amendments to every budget bill, including the budgets for colleges and K-12 schools, defended the measures on Thursday.
Richey posted on Twitter that Republicans were “holding the line to prevent the woke, divisive, marxist, DEI agenda from being paid for by MO taxpayer $’s and spreading throughout state bureaucracy.”
But even some Republicans sympathetic to the push against DEI initiatives have raised concerns about the financial impact of Richey’s proposal.
Senate President Pro Tem Caleb Rowden, a Columbia Republican, said on Twitter Friday morning that the language is “is overly broad and would result in billions of dollars in cuts to hospitals, health care facilities, colleges and universities, and the Missouri House of Representatives itself.”
State Rep. Justin Hicks, a Lake St. Louis Republican and the only Black Republican in the Missouri General Assembly, defended the amendments. He said they were intended to shift “the conversation” away from race and put everyone on an equal playing field.
“The language in here is meant to unite people and say, ‘We’re not going to talk about these things. We’re not going to have government involved in issues that deal with race,’” he said.
Black Democrats in the Missouri House painted Richey’s amendments as racist, saying they would hurt efforts to promote equality in the workforce.
“If these things are allowed to happen, we’re going right back to the Jim Crow laws,” said state Rep. Marlene Terry, a St. Louis Democrat who chairs the Missouri Legislative Black Caucus.
The debate also boiled over when House Republicans agreed to sustain the cut to public libraries. The funding cut was in response to a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri, on behalf of the Missouri Library Association and Missouri Association of School Librarians, challenging a state law passed last year that bans sexually explicit material from schools.
“I feel like we’re starting to live in a dystopian future from like 1984,” Meredith told reporters.
The Missouri Library Association, in a statement posted on social media, said the funding cut was unconstitutional, pointing to a provision in the state constitution that requires lawmakers to support public libraries.
“This tactic, meant to bully MLA into submission, instead directly harms public libraries who rely on those funds, especially the smaller, more rural libraries,” the association said.
The state’s spending plan will still need to be approved by the Missouri Senate before it heads to Gov. Mike Parson’s desk. Democrats said they were hopeful that the Senate would remove the language barring funding for diversity programs.
“We do continue to acknowledge that this is likely to be removed in the Senate,” Meredith said. “But we can’t guarantee anything.”
This story was updated to include Friday comments from Senate President Pro Tem Caleb Rowden.