House finishes debate on budget

The Columbia Tribune

Friday, March 28, 2014

By RUDI KELLER

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JEFFERSON CITY — The Missouri House finished debate on a $26.6 billion operating budget for the coming fiscal year yesterday after another round of arguments about Medicaid expansion and the accuracy of revenue estimates.

Roll-call votes on the 13 spending bills included near-unanimous agreement on spending to pay the state debt, maintain highways, operate prisons and pay lawmakers’ salaries. The chamber split into partisan camps on Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act or whether the state should operate the Ozark National Scenic Riverways.

The budget, as approved, spends more than $1 billion less than recommended by Gov. Jay Nixon, who predicted revenue would increase faster than lawmakers were willing to accept. Rep. Margo McNeil, D-Florissant, said the budget shortchanged education and other programs because it does not include the money Nixon anticipates.

“Unfortunately, the committee worked with the wrong set of numbers,” she said. “They were stingy.”

The budget now moves to the Senate, where it will be rewritten again in coming weeks. The revenue issue is one of the big unanswered questions for the Senate. In the House, Budget Committee Chairman Rick Stream, R-Kirkwood, set up a surplus fund in case Nixon is correct and sets aside more than $200 million for various programs from the fund.

The biggest item is for public schools. Nixon sought $278 million more for the Foundation Formula, the state’s basic aid program for education. Stream added $122 million, bringing the fund to $3.2 billion in the coming year, with another $156 million from the surplus fund if available.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, has not said how he will handle the difference between legislative estimates and Nixon’s revenue projection.

When Democratic lawmakers argued that more should be done for state workers — Nixon proposed a 3 percent pay increase, and Stream’s budget provides 1 percent — Stream defended the committee’s decisions, arguing that the money was not available for firm commitments to higher spending.

“We are trying to do something for state employees,” Stream said. “We have a fiduciary obligation to the state’s taxpayers that we are spending their money wisely and prudently, efficiently and economically.”

For higher education, the budget provides a firm 2 percent increase in state aid and another 1 percent from surplus funds if available. That would provide $420.6 million in the coming year for the University of Missouri System.

Other increases in higher education would add $7 million to the Bright Flight Scholarship program, adding a forgivable loan for students who work in the state after graduation and $16 million for the Access Missouri Scholarship, giving the state’s main need-based scholarship $83.5 million to distribute next year.

In Columbia, the State Historical Society of Missouri would receive a budget increase of almost $500,000, restoring its budget to pre-recession levels.

Medicaid expansion remained the most divisive budget issue. The bill authorizing spending on the Department of Social Services, which oversees Medicaid, passed on a 99-52 vote, the only budget bill to receive fewer than 100 favorable votes.

“We are turning our backs on the people of the state of Missouri who are the working poor,” said Rep. Jill Schupp, D-Creve Coeur.

Republicans who opposed expansion, which would add 300,000 working adults to the Medicaid rolls at a cost of $1.7 billion, said they want to reform the program before considering whether to cover more people.

The expanded eligibility would cover adults who earn as much as 138 percent of poverty. Federal funding would pay the full cost for two years and 90 percent thereafter.

“It is a big monster, and basically we are working to control it and reform it,” said Rep. Sue Allen, R-Town and Country.

This article was published in the Friday, March 28, 2014 edition of the Columbia Daily Tribune with the headline “House ends its debate on budget.”

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