St. Louis Post-Dispatch: Missouri Senate OKs $27 billion budget

By Kurt Erickson
Friday, April 8th, 2016

JEFFERSON CITY • The Missouri Senate signed off on the major pieces of a $27.2 billion state budget Thursday, setting in motion a final push by Republican lawmakers to get the spending blueprint to Gov. Jay Nixon’s desk.

The plan, which would go into effect July 1, restores funding cuts made in the House that had been targeted at the University of Missouri system after last year’s protests on the Columbia campus.

And, it attempts to address rising costs of providing health care to poor Missourians, includes funds to give small raises to state workers and eliminates state funding for Planned Parenthood.

“Cooler heads prevailed,” Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard said of restoring cuts to Mizzou. “I think some of the things that MU has done has helped defuse the situation.”

The Republican-crafted proposal, spread across 13 separate budget bills, is based on a projected 4.1 percent increase in state revenue for the coming year. It calls for no tax increases.

For the embattled University of Missouri system, senators erased most of the $8.7 million in cuts the House had inserted in its budget. Senators said those reductions would be punitive and more time should be given to the university system to improve itself after last year’s racially charged protests at its Columbia campus and the resignation of its system president.

The proposal includes an additional $56 million in funding for universities, which amounts to an increase for the schools of about 6 percent. That could be enough to allow schools to freeze tuition.

Nixon, during a visit to Crowder College in Neosho on Thursday, thanked the Senate and expressed hope that the added money is not cut during final negotiations between the House and Senate.

“Missouri leads the nation in holding down tuition increases at public universities, helping to put a college education within reach for more students and their families,” the Democratic governor said.

Both the House and the Senate must agree on the final budget before it is sent to the governor. The deadline for final passage is May 6.

Problems at Mizzou have been a focal point of the 2016 legislative session, with lawmakers calling for audits, budget cuts and the ouster of former communications assistant professor Melissa Click.

“It has overshadowed some of our other education issues in the state,” said Sen. David Pearce, R-Warrensburg.

The higher education budget wasn’t universally supported. The Senate version would again bar universities from granting in-state tuition rates to an estimated 1,200 students in the country illegally.

“I think we’re penalizing some of our brightest students,” said Sen. Gina Walsh, D-Bellefontaine Neighbors.

“I think it’s the wrong decision,” added Pearce. “It has tremendous impact.”

Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, said he doesn’t believe granting in-state tuition to students who are not in the U.S. legally is an appropriate use of taxpayer dollars.

“I know there are passionate feelings on both sides of this issue,” said Schaefer, who is chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

The budget plan also attempts to address rising health care costs for the state’s poorest residents. Medicaid costs, for example, are projected to increase 34 percent in the coming year.

“We are trying to slow this train down,” Schaefer said.

With prescription drug costs rising above $1.8 billion, the Senate version reduces projected spending by $56 million. Senators also asked the administration to find ways to pare an estimated $22 million by negotiating better drug prices and potentially limiting the amount of drugs prescribed to recipients.

Republicans also used the budget to target Planned Parenthood., which has resisted a Senate subpoena in the aftermath of last year’s investigation into the use of fetal body tissue. The plan bars Medicaid money from going to abortion service providers. State money already is prohibited from being spent on funding abortions. The net result: Missouri will lose $8 million in federal funds.

“It’s pouring salt into an already really, really bad decision,” said Sen. Jason Holsman, D-Kansas City.

Sen. Jill Schupp, D-Creve Coeur, said it was wrong for Republicans to “sneak” the provision into the budget without having a full debate.

The budget also calls for a $71 million increase for the education foundation formula, which funds K-12 public schools. Nixon recommended an $85 million increase.

The formula, however, is still underfunded by about $490 million. Schaefer said the growth in Medicaid is keeping the state from paying more.

“I would like to see it fully funded, but I understand that’s not going to happen,” said Schupp, a former school board member. “We’re still breaking our promise to our kids.”

The bills are House Bills 1-12.

This post was written by