Lawmakers finalize state budget that includes education funding increases

Columbia Daily Tribune

Thursday, May 8, 2014

By RUDI KELLER

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JEFFERSON CITY — A $26.4 billion state operating budget with substantial increases for public schools, state colleges and student scholarships won final approval Thursday in votes that lacked the drama that has at times marked past spending fights.

Lawmakers also approved a capital spending bill authorizing $220 million for construction projects. 

One of the lengthiest discussions focused on an item that is not in the plan — expanded eligibility for Medicaid. The budget rejects, for the second year, Gov. Jay Nixon’s call for expanded eligibility for Medicaid to cover 300,000 uninsured Missourians.

Nixon asked lawmakers to use $1.7 billion in federal aid, available under the 2010 Affordable Care Act, to expand coverage. With Republicans dominating both chambers, expansion has found few friends in the majority party.

“It is not just a fiscal issue, it is a moral issue,” said Rep. Jill Schupp, D-Creve Couer. “It says do we care enough about our neighbors that when they get ill they have a place to go.”

Rep. Keith Frederick, R-Rolla, said the program as it is now operated is too expensive and works poorly. The money that would pay for expansion in Missouri would add to the federal deficit, he said.

“That money is not falling from the sky,” Frederick said.

A handful of Republicans have urged their colleagues to go along with a reform plan that includes expansion. During debate today, Rep. Noel Torpey, R-Independence, urged the majority to accept the federal help to make those reforms possible.

“Whether you think the ACA is the greatest thing since sliced bread or a train wreck, it is the law of the land,” Torpey said. “Why not sooner than later?”

The House votes on each bill were followed quickly by Senate votes as lawmakers finished work on spending a day ahead of the constitutional deadline.

The budget provides a 5 percent boost overall for colleges and universities, divided based on performance measures. The University of Missouri would receive a $21.3 million boost, to $428.8 million. The budget also allocates $15 million to increase stipends under the Access Missouri scholarship program and $7 million to do the same for Bright Flight scholars if a proposed loan program is not enacted.

Some Democrats opposed the bill because spending on colleges and universities remains below pre-recession levels. “We have not gotten back to where we were six years ago,” Rep. Judy Morgan, D-Kansas City. “I applaud the priorities of putting money back into higher education. We need to put a lot more money back in.”

State Rep. Chris Kelly, D-Columbia, voted for the bill. He said he was glad to see increasing support in any form.

“It is better to be one step from hell going up instead of one step from heaven going down,” he said. “And we are going up.”

Highlights of the spending plan include:

P $200 million to replace the aging Biggs Forensic Center at Fulton State Hospital. The project would be financed with bonds issued by the Missouri Development Finance Board with annual debt payments of about $14 million.

P $114.8 million more from general revenue and $163.2 million from any surplus over revenue estimates for the public school foundation formula, providing $3.19 billion to $3.35 billion in basic education aid. The spending plan also adds $15 million to school transportation services for a total of $115.9 million.

P $23.6 million more for in-home services for adults with developmental disabilities to eliminate the waiting list for services.

P $48.2 million to provide dental coverage for current Medicaid recipients.

P $483,000 to restore the budget of the State Historical Society of Missouri to pre-recession levels.

After lawmakers were finished, Nixon issued a statement praising most of the budget decisions but criticizing lawmakers for not putting more into education.

“From making college more affordable to expanding services for Missourians with developmental disabilities, this budget includes many of the priorities I laid out earlier this year,” Nixon said. “These smart, strategic investments in our future are made possible by an economy that continues to pick up steam.”

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