STLtoday: Lawmakers move to limit benefits to blind Missourians

An estimated 225 blind people could be cut off from a special state fund under legislation approved Wednesday.

In action Tuesday, the Republican-controlled Senate approved legislation on a 23-9 vote that would impose financial limits on the state’s Blind Pension Fund program and remove any recipient who has a driver’s license from receiving the benefit.

The state’s Blind Pension Fund was established in the 1920s as a social safety net for the visually impaired. Last year, monthly payments of about $718 per month were paid out to an average of 2,874 recipients.

Under the proposal, blind people who have spouses making about $60,000 annually – or 500 percent of the federal poverty level – would no longer qualify for the monthly payments.

An analysis showed that about 29 of the recipients would lose the money if that restriction were imposed.

The proposal also would remove an estimated 196 from the rolls for having a driver’s license. A late amendment backed by Sen. Jill Schupp, D-Creve Coeur, would give blind people a 60 day window to turn in their licenses.

The changes, which are backed by the Missouri Department of Social Services, would ensure the program is helping those who need the assistance, said Sen. David Sater, R-Cassville, who carried the measure in the Senate.

“This is just common sense,” Sater said. “Missourians receiving blind pension benefits should actually be blind.”

The legislation comes as lawmakers are crafting a $28 billion budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1 while grappling with slow revenue growth and rising costs of social services and education.

The removal of the recipients is estimated to save about $1.1 million annually when fully implemented.

Sen.  Jake Hummel, D-St. Louis, raised concerns that the loss of the funds could hurt families with members who are blind.

“I think it’s a very traumatic experience,” said Sen. Jake Hummel, D-St. Louis.

“These are people who are vulnerable and in a tough position,” added Schupp.

Other opponents include St. Louis University law professor John Ammann, who led a successful lawsuit on behalf of blind Missourians alleging that the state has failed to properly pay recipients for decades.

The settlement, finalized in late February, requires the state to pay $21 million, with $11.4 million going toward the underpayments and $9.5 million to compensate the plaintiffs for interest on those underpayments.

“This bill would undo the result we achieved after a decade of litigation, and would be bad government in that it gives unfettered discretion to a state agency,” Ammann said.

The money could start being distributed in early 2019.

The legislation, which needs one more vote in the House before going to the governor’s desk, is House Bill 2171.

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