JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Eleven blind residents scaled the steps of the Missouri Capitol on Monday -- service dogs at their heels or white canes in their hands -- to publicly plead with lawmakers to preserve funding for a state program that provides health care to more than 2,800 blind people who lack private insurance and have limited wealth.
Whether their request is granted may depend on how health care is financed for another vulnerable group of Missourians -- 1,350 military veterans who live in state-run nursing homes.
House and Senate conference committee members who are hammering out a final version of the state's $24 billion operating budget have made funding for blind health care -- as well as some autism services and a portion of the state's tourism marketing -- dependent upon passage of a separate bill creating a dedicated funding source for state veterans homes.
But the veterans bill stalled Monday in the Senate, where it has become tied to an attempt by some Republicans to block funding to a women's political institute at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, which they contend has favored Democrats over Republicans.
The senators who held up the veterans legislation also want to include wording that would block money from being spent on a quality rating system for preschools and child care centers. They fear that a particular rating program being developed by the state education department would prohibit some centers from being eligible for state-subsidized child care.
The knot of issues must be detangled within the next few days if lawmakers are to meet a constitutional deadline to send Gov. Jay Nixon the budget by the end of Friday.
Negotiators did resolve several issues Monday, including one that will provide a 2 percent pay raise -- effective July 1 -- to state employees earning up to $70,000 annually. The raise would cover more than 54,500 employees, nearly 97 percent of the workforce, at a cost of almost $46 million. Missouri employees have not had a pay raise since 2009 and ranked last nationally in average yearly salaries in 2010.
The blind residents came to the Capitol on Monday hoping to put a personal face on the dollar figures at stake in the budget battle. They said the blind have higher-than-usual living expenses -- including special watches, cellphones and computer programs, among other things -- and often have other health problems that require costly medications.
"All we're asking really is they find it in their heart to keep this funding," said Denny Huff, president of the Missouri Council of the Blind. "A lot of them are depending on this for life-sustaining medical coverage -- prescriptions -- and they're just not going to find it any place else."
The state-funded blind health care program covers people who earn at least $755 monthly -- too much to qualify for the traditional Medicaid health care program -- but have no more than $20,000 in assets besides their homes.
The House version of the budget proposed to eliminate the program and replace it with a significantly scaled-down program. The Senate version would fully fund it at about $28 million.
The budgets proposed by the governor, House and Senate all assumed that there would be a new dedicated funding stream for the state's veterans' homes. Although the House passed two versions of that legislation, it has not yet cleared the Senate. If the veterans' funding legislation ultimately fails, budget negotiators said they may have to take general revenue from elsewhere to keep the homes open.
House Budget Committee chairman Ryan Silvey specifically cited the blind benefits program, the state Tourism Division and a $1 million proposal for regional autism projects as targets for potential reductions.
"There's a number of things that if that [veterans] bill doesn't pass, we're going to have to revisit and probably cut," said Silvey, R-Kansas City.
But state Sen. Jason Crowell, one of several senators who stalled debate, said budget negotiators were presenting "a false dichotomy." Crowell, R-Cape Girardeau, said they could just as easily eliminate the state employee pay raises or cut funding to public colleges and universities.
"They don't give a rip about the blind," Crowell said.