JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- The Missouri Senate on Tuesday began debating a $19.2 billion state budget plan that calls for restoring some cuts in health-care spending for the poor endorsed by the House of Representatives and Gov. Matt Blunt.
But Blunt warned that he would use his line-item veto power if legislators provide additional money for some of the Medicaid programs he has targeted for cuts.
Blunt's threat came as he signed into law legislation tightening Medicaid eligibility standards and limiting services in the government health-care program for the poor.
The legislature passed the bill enabling many of those changes, but it is still considering a budget for the fiscal year starting July 1. Lawmakers must pass a budget by May 6.
A version passed earlier in the House followed some of Blunt's recommendations but ignored others by providing money for such things as wheelchairs, artificial limbs and occasional eye checks for Medicaid recipients.
The Senate budget plan goes even further, restoring Blunt's proposed cuts to dental and foot care and allowing more low-income parents, seniors and disabled to remain on the program.
While the House budget plan would cut Medicaid eligibility to 23 percent of the federal poverty level, the Senate would set a 50 percent threshold. Currently, a recipient's income can't exceed 75 percent of the poverty level to qualify for Medicaid. The Senate also restored dental and podiatry benefits the House had eliminated.
Blunt said Missouri can't sustain the $5.3 billion program over the long haul without reducing its scope.
"If I received a budget that in multiple instances expanded the [Medicaid] program beyond what was in [the newly signed law], I would indeed use the line item veto," Blunt said at a Capitol news conference.
The Senate's budget plan calls for $96.6 million more in total state spending for the fiscal year beginning July 1 than the House version. Once all of the 13 appropriations bills that make up the state budget clear the Senate, negotiators will meet to rectify differences.
State spending would increase by $322.5 million, or 1.7 percent, from what the legislature originally approved for the current fiscal year.
The Senate approved the first nine appropriations bills on Tuesday, including two related to education spending. Medicaid will figure prominently when the debate continues today.
The Senate plan would cut the Department of Higher Education's budget by about $49 million to just over $1 billion. The House, following the governor's recommendation, voted to keep funding for public colleges and universities at current levels.
Southeast Missouri State University's appropriation would be $41.8 million under the Senate version, about $2 million less than it's receiving this year. State Sen. Jason Crowell, R-Cape Girardeau, said the funds for Southeast and other universities are likely to be restored before the final budget is approved.
The Senate made few changes to the $4.84 billion appropriation for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, which includes a $170 million boost in direct aid to local schools.
Funding for Department of Mental Health facilities in Southeast Missouri remains unchanged from the House position. Regional centers in Poplar Bluff and Sikeston that serve clients with mental and developmental disabilities are slated for separate appropriations of nearly $1.7 million apiece, increases of about $250,000 each from the current year. Appropriations 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.
Spending for the Southeast Missouri Correctional Center in Charleston would drop slightly to just over $11 million. Three authorized jobs at the maximum security prison would be eliminated.
The appropriations bills are HBs 1-13.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.