House backs $19 billion budget

Thursday, April 14, 2005

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- As Republicans took credit for tough but fiscally responsible choices and Democrats complained of cruel cuts to services for the needy and disabled, the Missouri House of Representatives on Wednesday gave preliminary approval to a roughly $19.1 billion state operating budget for the upcoming fiscal year.

Although spending on social welfare programs and other areas of the budget took heavy hits, the GOP-led House's plan calls for $204.1 million in additional overall spending compared with what lawmakers originally approved for the current fiscal year.

House Speaker Rod Jetton, R-Marble Hill, said the plan, which isn't dependent on tax increases, sets new state spending priorities.

"We tried to take available funding and redirect it in a way that will take care of some of the most pressing needs of our state," Jetton said.

The budget proposal Republican Gov. Matt Blunt presented to the legislature in January was $239.2 million out of balance based on expected revenue. Blunt intended to make up the difference himself through budget withholdings after the July 1 start of the fiscal year. Unwilling to give up their appropriations authority, however, House leaders chose to find the savings upfront, although with Blunt's input.

Democrats complained the deep cuts in health-care spending for the poor and services for the disabled and elderly might yield some savings in the near term but in the long run will end up increasing taxpayer costs. State Rep. Margaret Donnelly, D-St. Louis, said reductions in preventative health-care programs, for example, will cause many low-income Missourians to forgo seeing a doctor until they develop serious illnesses.

"This is a short-sighted budget," Donnelly said. "It breaks promises with our most vulnerable citizens and ultimately it doesn't save us any money."

A second round of voting is scheduled today to send the 13 bills that make up the operating budget to the Senate. Because the House is running a couple of weeks behind in the process, the Senate Appropriations Committee is already crafting its own budget plan. The constitutional deadline for sending the budget to the governor to be signed into law is May 6.

Southeast Missouri State University's state appropriation would remain $43.8 million, the same as the current fiscal year. Blunt recommended no increases for any of the state's colleges and universities. Total higher education spending would remain flat at around $1 billion.

The House approved $4.84 billion in spending for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, including an additional $170 million in aid to local schools the governor sought.

The plan includes a net reduction of 888 state jobs, some of which are vacant. The bulk of the job losses would be at the departments of revenue, corrections and mental health. The House rejected Blunt's call for a 1 percent salary increase for state workers.

Thanks to the infusion of federal funds, two Department of Mental Health facilities in Southeast Missouri would receive budget increases in excess of $250,000 each. Regional centers in Poplar Bluff and Sikeston that serve those with mental and developmental disabilities are slated for separate appropriations of nearly $1.7 million apiece.

Funding for the Cottonwood Residential Treatment Center in Cape Girardeau, which serves children with behavioral and emotional problems, would stay flat at around $2.4 million.

The budget would reduce Medicaid eligibility from 75 percent of the federal poverty level to 23 percent.

State Rep. Trent Skaggs, D-North Kansas City, sought to force lawmakers to share the pain of Medicaid recipients who stand to lose coverage by offering an amendment to cut spending on taxpayer-funded health insurance for elected officials by 20 percent. Skaggs, who doesn't participate in the state plan, said the amendment would cost each lawmaker about $115 a month in higher health insurance premiums.

"If we are going to sit here and tell people they have to sacrifice, we ought to sacrifice, too," Skaggs said.

The proposal fell on a 78-75 vote. State Rep. Jim Lembke, R-St. Louis, said lawmakers deserve the benefits they receive as state employees.

"Are we expected to come down here and represent the people for nothing? It's unreasonable," Lembke said. "We are doing the work of the people, and we ought to be fairly and justly compensated for that work."

The appropriations bills are HBs 1-13.

mpowers@missourian.com

(573) 635-4608

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