STLtoday: Missouri lawmakers approve $28.3 billion budget

Overcoming the distraction of Gov. Eric Greitens’ woes, Missouri lawmakers Wednesday approved a $28.3 billion spending plan for the fiscal year beginning July 1.

The Legislature’s budget, approved on a daylong series of votes in the Republican-controlled House and Senate, rejects a number of recommendations sought by the scandal-plagued governor, including his proposed blueprint for funding public schools and universities.

Instead, kindergarten through grade 12 schools will receive a nearly $99 million funding increase in the next fiscal year, allowing lawmakers to claim the state is meeting its core school funding goals outlined in state law. It also boosts state aid for school transportation costs by $10 million.

“I think we’ve got a good product here. I believe it was an inclusive process that reflects the priorities of the people of Missouri,” said House Budget Committee chairman Rep. Scott Fitzpatrick, R-Shell Knob.

“I’m very proud of the work we’ve done,” added Rep. Justin Alferman, R-Hermann, the No. 2 member of the House Budget Committee.

Democrats said the state could have boosted funding for schools even more if Republicans would agree to increase taxes or reverse tax cuts that were put in place in 2014.

“We, in fact, do have many suggestions on the table on where we can find more revenue to fund education,” said Rep. Peter Merideth, D-St. Louis. “The schools don’t have the funding they need.”

Greitens, a Republican, unveiled his budget in January, just days after he admitted having an extramarital affair in 2015, before he was governor. He will go on trial next week on felony invasion of privacy charges related to the affair. The package of budget bills now goes to Greitens’ desk.

The plan approved by lawmakers increases total state spending by about $600 million over the current year budget. It is built on the assumption that state revenues will grow 1.9 percent next year.

Greitens had called for a $68 million cut to universities, but lawmakers restored that amount on the condition the institutions don’t raise tuition by more than 1 percent during the next school year.

Rep. Donna Lichtenegger, R-Jackson, said the state should avoid cutting aid to universities because it helps educate the state’s workforce.

“They need to be able to have the money they need to function,” she said.

The budget also calls for $700 per year pay raises for state workers earning under $70,000 to address high turnover rates. Missouri is ranked last in the nation in its pay to state government workers.

State prison guards will get an extra $350-per-year raises on top of the $700.

Greitens had asked for $650 salary hikes contingent on the Legislature making changes to state hiring laws. Those reforms have not yet won approval and an administration spokesman earlier suggested the governor could veto the raises if the changes aren’t made.

Along with ignoring his education budget proposals, lawmakers also rejected Greitens’ call for a special $25 million fund that would have helped finance local construction projects designed to bring jobs to the state.

Not all were pleased with the final result.

Rep. Daron McGree, D-Kansas City, criticized the amount of a special $750,000 grant to Harris-Stowe State University in St. Louis. Democratic lawmakers in St. Louis had sought an extra $2 million in funding for the historically black university .

“They don’t have enough full-time teachers. Harris-Stowe needs help. Many of their students are going to other universities in St. Louis … to use their labs,” McGee said.

The budget plan also bars public universities from offering in-state tuition rates to students who are in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. DACA recipients, commonly referred to as “Dreamers,” arrived in the U.S. before they turned 16, were younger than 31 in June 2012, completed high school or served in the military, and had clean criminal records.

“They built a life in the state of Missouri. I really think we do a disservice to those students,” said Sen. Jill Schupp, D-Creve Coeur.

Lawmakers also squabbled over cuts to the Department of Health and Senior Services, which has been in a showdown with legislators over the release of data about a deadly, tick-borne virus.

The budget cuts eight positions in the agency director’s office in retaliation for the department’s refusal to reveal how many people have tested positive for antibodies for the Bourbon virus that killed a Meramec State Park employee in 2017.

The department argues the information was a closed record, citing both Missouri State Statute and federal health privacy laws, which protect patients’ medical records.

Merideth said the action is “punitive” and should be reversed.

Alferman called the agency’s actions “appalling.”

“I don’t know how some of you sleep at night defending this department,” Alferman said.

This post was written by