Time is running out for Missouri lawmakers to finish the state’s $27 billion budget.
Hanging in the balance is the fate of thousands of elderly and disabled Missourians left wondering if they’ll be cut off from state assistance for in-home and nursing home care. Others wonder if they’ll receive a tax credit to help with rent.
The state’s public universities are going to see their funding slashed, but just how deep is unknown.
Whether the state will fully fund its employee retirement system is still up for debate, as is how many people Missouri needs to employ to enforce child labor laws and the minimum wage and to adjudicate workers’ compensation cases.
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The state constitution mandates that the legislature send the budget to the governor by 6 p.m. Friday. That doesn’t leave much room for error as negotiators from the House and Senate convene to work out their differences.
“With a week left, this is definitely the latest that we’ve been in the process since I’ve been here,” said House Budget chairman Scott Fitzpatrick, a Shell Knob Republican.
Lawmakers entered the year facing a massive budget shortfall, thanks in part to rising spending on programs such as Medicaid and plummeting corporate tax collections because of legislation approved by lawmakers in recent years.
Compounding their problems, and greatly constricting their timeline, was the fact that Gov. Eric Greitens delayed the release of his budget plan by two weeks.
“We did not have this budget very long,” said Sen. Dan Brown, a Rolla Republican who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee. “We got it really, really late.”
One of the biggest potential pitfalls in budget negotiations was eliminated early last week when a bipartisan group of senators decided to buck GOP leaders and amend the budget to fully fund the state’s K-12 public education system for the first time in history.
The House had said fully funding public schools was its top budget priority. Senate leaders had repeatedly said it wasn’t going to happen. But in a break from tradition, 10 Republicans and all nine Democrats in the Senate ignored the wishes of GOP leaders and amended the budget to bump education funding by $45 million.
Senate leaders did fend off a push by Sen. Rob Schaaf, a St. Joseph Republican, to block the state from turning over more of Missouri’s Medicaid program to private, managed-care companies.
Currently, managed-care companies provide coverage to Medicaid recipients in the Interstate 70 corridor, but on Monday that will expand statewide. Schaaf objected, noting that the expansion wasn’t the result of legislation but of language slipped into the state budget back in 2015. He also questioned whether the way the contracts were constructed was constitutional.
But his amendment rolling back managed-care expansion was defeated 22-10.
With public school funding and managed care off the table, the biggest sticking point could be in-home and nursing home care for elderly and disabled Missourians.
Greitens’ budget proposal called for saving $52 million by requiring people to display more severe disabilities to qualify for state assistance, a plan that would have kicked 20,000 people off the program.
“That’s pretty draconian,” Brown said. “That’s pretty bad.”
The House voted to maintain funding for in-home and nursing home care by repealing a property tax credit for low-income seniors who rent their homes. The change would impact roughly 100,000 Missourians who take advantage of the credit, which averages about $500 per person.
But a Democratic filibuster appears to have killed the tax credit repeal in the Senate, putting the funding of in-home and nursing home care in question.
Another difference left to be sorted out is higher education funding.
The House trimmed the University of Missouri System budget by 9 percent, or roughly $50 million. The state’s other public universities and colleges saw a 6.5 percent cut.
The Senate flipped those totals in the hopes of working out a compromise with the House that would result in every school getting an equal cut.
The Missouri State Employees Retirement System, commonly known as MOSERS, requested an additional $45 million from the state to help cover costs in the fiscal year that begins July 1. The Senate funded that request, but the House only put $15 million into the pension plan.
Fitzpatrick has argued that the pension plan is not in long-term crisis, and that $45 million in additional funds during a tough budget year is too big a request.
But proponents say the money is needed to maintain the fund’s financial integrity and to assure the state doesn’t lose its AAA bond rating.
“I don’t want to see that fund get behind,” Brown said.
The House budget includes funding for 11 inspectors in the state Department of Labor. Those inspectors enforce things like child labor laws, prevailing wage and minimum wage, among other state statutes. The Senate budget cuts that number to one. The Senate also differs from the House by eliminating 12 administrative law judges. Those judges adjudicate workers’ compensation cases and other labor issues.
Senate Minority Leader Gina Walsh, a St. Louis County Democrat and president of the Missouri State Building and Construction Trades Council, questioned the wisdom of those cuts.
“These laws are still on the books,” she said, “and we have to enforce them.”
Despite some hiccups in the process — from the governor delivering his budget late to gridlock nearly derailing the Senate — legislators in both chambers are optimistic they’ll meet the Friday deadline and avoid having to return for a special session.
The Star’s Allison Pecorin contributed to this story.