Facing larger Republican majorities than at any time during his tenure, Gov. Jay Nixon preached the virtues of bipartisanship Wednesday night during his seventh State of the State address.
But a key piece of Nixon’s speech and agenda — a plea for lawmakers to expand Medicaid eligibility under the terms of President Barack Obama’s health care law — once again drew outright dismissal from GOP leaders.
Nixon laid out his proposed $8.6 billion budget, calling on Missouri lawmakers to pump millions more into public schools and higher education. The largest chunk of that funding boost, however, only happens if lawmakers sign off on a trio of legislative proposals Nixon believes would increase state revenue by $178 million.
Chief among them is Medicaid expansion.
“Since I stood here last year, Missouri taxpayers have sent $2 billion to Washington,” Nixon said. “Those dollars are being used right now, in other states, to reform and improve their Medicaid systems.”
Nixon’s budget office estimates that 300,000 uninsured Missourians would be eligible for coverage under Medicaid expansion. The state would save $81 million in expenses and see $36.4 million in additional revenue in the next fiscal year alone, said state Budget Director Linda Luebbering.
Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey, a St. Charles Republican, rejected the idea of expansion.
“Republican state legislatures around the country still stand in opposition to expansion specifically because of the hole it creates, not only in the federal budget, but in state budgets in future years,” he said.
Nixon even faced criticism on the issue from fellow Democrats over his decision last year to withhold funding approved by the legislature to restore dental benefits for most adult Medicaid recipients. The money was withheld to balance the state’s budget amid falling revenue.
“He tours the state talking expansion of Medicaid then turns around and withholds money that could help poor people who can’t afford dental care,” said Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, a St. Louis Democrat. “He needs to walk the walk and stop just talking the talk.”
A week after state transportation officials warned Missouri would soon only be able to afford to maintain a fraction of its 34,000 miles of roads and bridges, Nixon pointed to two possible solutions.
While he stopped short of formally endorsing either idea, Nixon said turning Interstate 70 into a toll road “deserves serious consideration” and an increase to the state’s 17-cents-per-gallon gas tax “is worth a very close look.”
Meanwhile, Nixon slammed lawmakers for failing to pass legislative and campaign ethics reform, noting that “I’ve talked about it right here, every year I’ve been governor.”
Missouri is the only state with the combination of no caps on campaign contributions, no limits on lobbyist gifts to lawmakers and no restrictions on when elected officials can go into lobbying.
“We have the weakest ethics laws in the nation,” Nixon said. “It’s not fair. It’s not right. And you and I know it.”
Nixon’s budget proposal includes a $50 million increase in the public school funding formula and $12 million for higher education. It also calls for $11 million to provide preschool for low-income working families, $4 million to expand college scholarships and $43 million for services for people with developmental disabilities.
Some education groups said a $50 million increase wouldn’t be enough to avoid cuts in certain school districts.
“The amount is disappointing,” Mike Wood, a lobbyist for the Missouri State Teachers Association, told The Associated Press. “It could mean teacher layoffs.”
The budget does not include a pay raise for state employees, and it eliminates 217 full-time positions from the government payroll, a fact that earned rebuke from the state’s largest public employee union.
“Those of us in public service understand tight budgets,” said Michelle Mason, a developmental aide at Bellefontaine Habilitation Center in north St. Louis County. “But we reject the notion that tough times are a reason to give up on making life better for hard-working people.”
Nixon touted during his address that his administration has shrunk government and reduced the state workforce by 5,000 positions.
“We balance budgets. We keep taxes low,” he said. “And we continue to downsize state government.”
The overarching theme of his speech, however, was a call for the Republican-dominated General Assembly to reach across the aisle and work with him during the upcoming session.
“Let’s show the people we serve,” he said, “that we can rise above partisanship, unite and move Missouri forward.”