JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — The issues of Northeast Missouri and its residents have been neglected, overlooked and passed by for far too long, two of the region's lawmakers in Jefferson City say.
"I am going to give you the raw numbers, but 37% of Missourians live in rural communities. That is the equivalent of 2 million people, which is double the population of St. Louis County," state Rep. Louis Riggs, R-Hannibal, said. "In Southwest Missouri, you have Springfield and Branson, and they get lots of love from Jefferson City. You also have St. Louis and Kansas City, and they get lots of love. Columbia gets lots of love. Frankly, though, Kirksville, Moberly and Hannibal needs love, but because we don't have the population or a statewide elected official from here, we don't get the attention that other regions of the state do. I have to constantly remind people that there are signs of intelligent life north of I-70."
State Sen. Cindy O'Laughlin, R-Shelbina, agreed, saying, "there is a fair amount of talking behind the scenes about how rural areas are underfunded and how we are treated like we almost don't exist."
That lack of attention in the General Assembly has hurt the region, O'Laughlin said.
"We spend millions of dollars on roads and bridges in St. Louis, and I am out here looking at roads that are an absolute hazard," O'Laughlin said. "Obviously, the way we appropriate money as a state is skewed to bigger regions with larger populations, but those regions are ahead of us in so many ways."
Riggs said one of those ways is high-speed broadband internet.
"The issue is that 51% of Missourians in this region do not have access to broadband internet," Riggs said. He added that Missouri internet speeds in the state rank 49th in the nation, only behind Montana.
"As a rural population, having slow or no internet is actually hurting our small businesses because they can't get connected to a website, which would help them grow their business," Riggs said. He said that as he visits with his St. Louis and Kansas City colleagues in the House, they are unable to understand the internet issues because their communities have had high-speed internet access for more than 25 years.
O'Laughlin said the state also has skewed the way it awards large tax credits to larger communities, but she hopes to change that.
"I'm thinking there should be an economic incentive that should be included that would require those who get these large tax credits to invest in rural areas with populations of less than 15,000 people," O'Laughlin said. "That would hit about every town in every county in Northeast Missouri outside of Columbia. The state needs to start investing in these underserved areas."
O'Laughlin said she also would like to see more funding directed toward Truman State University in Kirksville, especially as the college looks to open the Greenwood Center Project, which would be the state's first autism research center north of Interstate 70.
In 2018, the center was set to receive $700,000 but only received $466,667 after Missouri Governor Mike Parson made a series of line-item vetoes.
In 2017, the project was slated to receive $1.5 million in the state's capital improvements bill, but the legislation authorizing the expenditure never made it out of the committee hearing.
In 2016, Gov. Jay Nixon announced the project would receive $5.5 million, only to restrict more than half of that money a month later.
"It kind of points what the state's priorities are when decisions like that are made," O'Laughlin said.
Riggs is forming a Rural Caucus that would highlight rural issues through legislation in the General Assembly. The caucus, which has yet to meet, has received a warm reception from other rural area lawmakers.