The budget that Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon has presented to the General Assembly unfairly places money for Missouri schools squarely in the middle of a power struggle between the governor and the legislature.
Nixon boasted in his State of the State speech Wednesday that he was proposing “record funding for K-12 education,” with a $129 million increase to the funding formula, but that claim is deceptive because all but $50 million of the increase hinges on the legislature expanding Medicaid eligibility limits.
Doing so would make health care affordable for about 300,000 working Missourians and bring a good chunk of federal money to the state. Lawmakers should expand eligibility but likely won’t because of irrational resistance to anything connected to “Obamacare.”
While legislators are wrong to deny health care to thousands of citizens, Nixon’s attempt to force the issue by tying it to education funding is foolish and cynical.
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Schools currently receive $490 million less than what the state’s funding formula calls for. Nixon has pledged to fully fund the formula by the end of his term. He won’t get there by playing games with the legislature.
To make matters worse, a change in a law passed last year will force a shift in funding among schools districts, meaning some suburban and rural districts could actually see their funding drop next year if overall education funding increases by only $50 million.
The overarching problem is that Missouri revenues have flatlined. While the state’s budget isn’t as distressed as what Kansas is facing, the current and long-term picture is troubling. Republican lawmakers had no business passing tax cuts last year; their scheduled phase-in beginning in 2017 will cause more problems.
Nixon, a Democrat who is confronted with a huge, veto-proof Republican majority in the legislature, made a plea for bipartisanship and pledged to do his part by consulting with lawmakers more frequently.
Six years into his governorship, that would be a belated but good move. The state is facing big challenges, including funding for highway repairs, which Nixon mentioned in his speech.
Tolls on Interstate 70 is an idea that “deserves serious consideration,” he said. And an increase in the state’s gas tax, at 17 cents a gallon the fifth-lowest in the nation, “deserves a very close look.”
All that is stating the obvious. What Nixon didn’t do, and should have, is pledge to lead a campaign for one or both of those options.
There is plenty of time this session for Nixon and legislative leaders to get together and agree on paths forward. And the highest placed Republican leaders, Tom Dempsey in the Senate and John Diehl in the House, indicated after Nixon’s speech that they would seek to work with the governor.
But Nixon, with his budget, has already set up a clash with the legislature. Besides the K-12 education funding increase, he tied some funding for public colleges and universities to lawmakers’ willingness to expand Medicaid, pass tax amnesty and some other controversial measures. Also in that balance are dental care for adults on Medicaid and higher rates for providers who serve Medicaid patients.
Lawmakers can play the heroes’ role by allocating schools the $129 million they need to avoid layoffs and other harsh measures. But unless they expand Medicaid, they’ll have to cut from somewhere else to help the schools.
With Nixon’s flawed budget and legislative resistance to helping the working poor through Medicaid expansion, the stage is set for a contentious, joyless session of the Missouri legislature.