JEFFERSON CITY | Missouri lawmakers are one step closer to completing work on the state’s $24 billion budget.
The Missouri Senate on Wednesday approved a plan to fund Missouri's veterans' nursing homes, a bill that budget negotiators said was key to continue their work. House Budget Chairman Ryan Silvey, a Kansas City Republican, said the committee working out the state's $24 billion budget would have to enact deeper cuts to various programs if the veterans’ bill didn’t pass.
Stalling the plan was an unrelated matter concerning a $2 million earmark for Southeast Missouri State University.
House Speaker Steven Tilley, a Perryville Republican, wanted the $2 million because the school has the second lowest funding-to-student ratio among state universities. But Sen. Jason Crowell, a Cape Girardeau Republican, demanded it be removed, arguing that one school shouldn’t get preferential treatment.
Crowell promised to block votes on every bill, including the budget, until the earmark was removed, and Senate leaders acknowledged they didn’t have enough votes to end a filibuster.
In order to get the veterans’ bill through the Senate, the budget now includes $3 million that will be distributed among eight of the state’s 10 public universities, based on funding disparities. The University of Missouri and Missouri State University were left out of the extra funding because they “have a statewide presence,” said Senate Appropriations Chairman Kurt Schaefer, a Columbia Republican.
The bill also requires the legislature to come up with an equitable funding formula for public universities by Dec. 31, 2013. The new plan is to be implemented by fiscal 2015.
Another key provision in the bill that had to be included for it to pass would ban the implementation of a quality rating system for child care centers. Sen. Jane Cunningham demanded the provision be included before she would allow the bill to come to a vote.
The original wording of the quality rating system provision was panned by critics who said it could be interpreted to apply to programs at colleges and universities that offer degrees or credentialing in early childhood development.
Cunningham agreed to amended the wording to address those concerns.
Sen. Jolie Justus, a Kansas City Democrat who criticized the original wording, said the changes made her comfortable that no unintended consequences would result from passing the bill.
At the heart of the legislation, though, was the veterans’ bill. It would redirect more than $30 million of casino fees from early childhood programs to fund the state’s seven veterans' homes. The early childhood programs would receive $35 million from Missouri's share of a nationwide settlement with tobacco companies.
Silvey had indicated earlier in the week that failing to pass the veterans’ bill could mean the end of a $28 million program that provides health care to roughly 2,800 blind Missourians who earn too much to qualify for Medicaid -- roughly $9,495 a year -- but have less than $20,000 in assets besides their homes.
The state has funded the health care program for more than 50 years.
But even with the passage of the veterans’ bill, budget negotiators decided to limit the blind health care program to those earning up to three times the federal poverty level, or roughly $30,000 a year for an individual. Anyone earning more than 150 percent of the poverty level will be required to pay a premium.
Silvey said his original problem with the program has always been that it “treats one disability differently than all others” and that it isn’t means tested. Limiting participation and mandating premiums addresses his concerns, he said.
Gov. Jay Nixon, however, doesn't believe the changes to the budget will have any impact on who can access the health care program. Changing eligibility would require passing legislation to change state law.
“We are pleased that the conference committee has restored full funding authority for this vital lifeline for blind Missourians, but the attempt to place additional limitations on eligibility through the budget process does not change existing law – and is invalid," Sam Murphey, the governor's communications director, said in a statement. "We will ensure that this program continues to serve all 2,800 needy, blind Missourians who depend on it."
The budget now only needs to be approved once more by both the Senate and House before going to Gov. Jay Nixon. Both chambers are expected to vote on the budget tomorrow.