JEFFERSON CITY | Negotiations over Missouri’s $24 billion budget hit another roadblock on Thursday over a plan to fund veterans' nursing homes and early childhood programs.
But while veterans’ funding may be the focus of the stalemate, complicating matters is an effort by some Republican Senators to shut down the Sue Shear Institute for Women in Public Life and bar the state from funding a quality rating system for preschools.
Both the House and Senate have passed different versions of the budget. A conference committee was formed to work out differences, but House Budget Chairman Ryan Silvey said there was no reason for that committee to meet until legislation passed that would provide a funding stream for Missouri's seven nursing homes for military veterans.
"The veterans' home issue is kind of the linchpin of this entire budget right now,” said Silvey, a Kansas City Republican.
On Wednesday, the House passed legislation that would redirect more than $30 million of casino fees from early childhood programs to fund veterans’ homes. The early childhood programs would receive $35 million from Missouri's share of a nationwide settlement with tobacco companies.
The legislation is one vote away from being sent to the governor, but Senate President Pro Tem Rob Mayer, a Dexter Republican, said he won’t bring it up for a vote.
Instead, a similar funding plan endorsed by a Senate committee on Thursday will get priority, Mayer said.
But in addition to funding veterans’ homes and early childhood programs, the legislation also contains provisions pertaining to a quality rating system and the Sue Shear Institute.
Both provisions are a priority for Sen. Jane Cunningham, a Chesterfield Republican who as part of a group of nine senators helped delay debate on the budget last week. Cunningham was successful at getting both ideas into the budget, but she said she also wants to ensure the wording is in state law so it the issue won’t come up again down the road.
The Sue Shear Institute for Women in Public Life is housed at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and says its mission is to assist women in developing the interest and skills necessary to serve in elected and appointed office.
But Cunningham contends it is just a training ground for Democrats and has engaged in “political activity with taxpayer money.”
As for a quality rating system, she said her goal is to ensure the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education can’t implement the system over the objections of the legislature, which has opposed it in the past.
"A lot of us wanted to make sure that money didn’t go to government agencies that were doing things they were told not to do," Cunningham said.
Both Silvey and Rep. Sara Lampe, a Springfield Democrat who is serving on the conference committee, said the wording of Cunningham’s provisions goes too far and House members would not be able to accept it.
Sen. Kiki Curls, a Kansas City Democrat, went a step further, saying she would consider blocking the legislation if Republicans don’t remove the two provisions.
The fear, Curls said, is that the wording is so broad it could have unintended consequences.
For example, in addition to banning the state from funding the Sue Shear Institute, it also bans funding for organizations that engage in “training college women leaders” or “encouraging women to seek public office.”
If senators want to discuss other issues then they should introduce stand-alone bills and not try to tie them to veterans’ funding, Silvey said.
“Unfortunately the senate has decided to tie two unrelated issues together for reasons that are more personal and political than they are policy,” Silvey said. “For the leader of the senate to continue to play political games with veterans and children is unconscionable.”
Mayer said he’s confident a plan will be worked out to fund veterans’ homes before the legislature adjourns on May 18.
A budget must be passed and sent to Gov. Jay Nixon by May 11, and there is no reason for the conference committee to delay its work any longer, Mayer said.
“I don’t understand why you wouldn’t work on something,” said Mayer, who previously served as Senate appropriations chairman. “For the last two years that [Rep. Silvey] has been chairman of the budget committee, for some reason he’s resorted to these types of tactics. In my 12 years in the legislature, I’ve never seen these types of tactics."
Mayer added that the new provisions need to be attached to the veterans funding plan to live up to agreements made between senators in order to pass the budget.
"Promises were made that we’re trying to work through," Mayer said, adding that he has not yet had the chance to fully study the provisions being advocated by Cunningham.
The quality rating system and Sue Shear Institute provisions are a priority for several lawmakers, Cunningham said, and they will stand together to make sure they are included in the legislation.
Silvey said the conference committee could meet again on Monday.