When he returned to the Capitol this week, Missouri House Majority Leader Tim Jones said he wasn’t sure what to expect.
“This was one of the most dramatic weeks that I’ve had in my time here,” said Jones, a Eureka Republican. “At the beginning of the week, it looked like we ... might be headed to a special session.”
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Some Republicans in the Senate were holding the chamber hostage over promises made to them by party leadership that they say weren’t being kept. With a deadline looming to approve the state’s $24 billion budget — and without the needed votes to overcome the filibuster — many were preparing for the worst.
But in the end, lawmakers completed their work on Missouri’s $24 billion budget Thursday and sent it to Gov. Jay Nixon a day earlier than constitutionally required.
“Calmer heads really did prevail,” Jones said.
After entering the session facing an estimated $500 million budget shortfall, the budget provides pay raises for state employees making less than $70,000 a year and avoids cuts to public school districts, colleges and universities. It also creates a dedicated $30 million funding stream for veterans nursing homes.
“We passed our budget a day early and without raising taxes,” said Senate Majority Leader Tom Dempsey, a St. Charles Republican. “Was it pretty? No. But we’re doing the things we need to be doing to govern the state.”
The state plans to spend nearly every dollar it brings in, leaving little more that $6 million for any midyear adjustments, an amount far less than normal.
Democrats were generally supportive of the result of months of budget work. Rep. Sara Lampe, a Springfield Democrat on the House Budget Committee, said a tough economy forced some tough decisions. But by refusing to consider any tax increases, she said, the legislature has left the state facing another year of cuts.
“Unless we make some tough decisions about revenue in this state, our budget will be in even a bigger hole next year,” she said. “We’re going to continue to cut and cut and cut. People are going to continue to lose services, our roads and bridges will continue to crumble and our schools will be underfunded.”
The state’s workforce was reduced by 956 full-time state employees compared to the current year. And while K-12 school funding avoided cuts from last year’s budget, it will still be $439 million under the required funding level in the next school year.
Additionally, the public school budget assumes that the Missouri Lottery will generate an additional $35 million in the fiscal year that starts July 1.
House Budget Chairman Ryan Silvey, a Kansas City Republican, acknowledged that he has doubts about the projected $35 million in additional lottery proceeds. But he’s been assured that the governor’s office has a plan to meet that goal, although he hasn’t seen it.
The budget also provides for nearly full funding of a health care program for the blind, an issue that has been one of the most contentious of the budget process.
Currently the $28 million program provides health care to about 2,800 blind Missourians who earn too much to qualify for Medicaid — more than 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 the blind for more than 50 years.
Lawmakers provided $25 million in funding and decided to limit the health care program to blind Missourians who earn 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, or roughly $16,700, would have to pay a premium.
Premiums are expected to make up the $3 million gap in funding.
Nixon’s office believes the eligibility restrictions are not legal and has indicated that he does not intend to follow them. Both Silvey and Schaefer disagreed, saying the enrollment restrictions do not need separate legislation to go into effect.
The budget is now on the desk of Nixon, a Democrat, who can veto particular provisions or withhold money from programs if he believes expenditures will exceed revenues.