by Rudi Keller, Missouri Independent
The Missouri House gave first round approval Tuesday to a package of budget bills spending $46.2 billion, with Republicans defeating repeated Democratic efforts to tap the state’s record surplus.
The budget includes boosts to higher education funding, both for institutions and scholarships, as well as funding one of last year’s most controversial issues, Medicaid expansion. During debate, Republicans blocked Democratic amendments to make large increases in funding for school transportation, teacher pay and home health care for people with disabilities.
The biggest point of contention as the debate started was whether to tap into the general revenue surplus that could be $3 billion or more at the end of the fiscal year in 2023. Gov. Mike Parson’s original budget proposal anticipated a surplus of $1.5 billion and cuts in the House Budget Committee were expected to increase that to $1.8 billion.
But revenues are growing at a brisk pace, far exceeding expectations. Instead of contracting by 0.5%, as estimated in December, tax receipts grew 5.6% through the first nine months of the fiscal year. That would generate an unanticipated $686 million by June 30 and make the starting base for the coming year that much bigger.
The House operates under a balancing rule that bars members from increasing general revenue spending in one area without cutting it in another. House Democratic Leader Crystal Quade of Springfield tried in vain to convince the House to suspend that rule and use a portion of the surplus.
“If you think Senators aren’t going to spend that money, you must be new here,” Quade said.
Republicans, who opposed Quade’s motion, said saving the money is the most prudent course.
“You are going to hear consistently from the other side of the aisle that we are not spending enough money,” House Budget Committee Chairman Cody Smith, R-Carthage, said.
During the course of the debate, state Rep. Peter Merideth of St. Louis, ranking Democrat on the Budget Committee, tried repeatedly to tap the general revenue surplus without finding cuts elsewhere. He tried to spend $100 million to give schools grants for increasing teacher pay, add $215 million to school transportation needs and provide more than $100 million more for state colleges and universities.
Most of his large amendments never came to a vote because they were deemed to violate the balancing rule.
On most other amendments, a word of opposition from Smith was enough to prevent passage.
Democrats also failed, with a few exceptions, in most other attempts to change the budget plan, which spends almost $1.5 billion less than proposed by Parson.
In a few instances, they were successful, including a plan from state Rep. Betsy Fogle to move $20 million in federal emergency funds for child care into programs to help state agencies and small businesses provide care and increases to scholarships, both the need-based Access Missouri program and the “Bright Flight” scholarship program for high-achieving students.
To save general revenue, the committee cut Parson’s proposal for a $500 million deposit in the state retirement system. It also slashed several of the governor’s proposals for using federal stimulus funds.
Near the end of debate, Merideth tried to restore every dollar cut from Parson’s stimulus plan.
“What I see here is not a plan,” he said of the committee-passed bill. “What I see in this bill is that the governor came up with a plan, the departments came up with a plan and we said, eh, let’s cut this back because we just aren’t sure yet.”
Smith, however, said the bill does support Parson’s plan, but allows for flexibility later for programs that don’t deliver as promised.
“We are taking it in bite-sized pieces,” Smith said.
Two hot-button issues – COVID-19 mandates and whether to allow Planned Parenthood to work as a provider in the Medicaid program – took up time during the six hours allotted to debate on Tuesday.
Every bill now carries a provision sponsored by Rep. Chris Sander, R-Lone Jack, prohibiting any department in state government, or any public schools or any agency using public funds, from holding an event that requires a vaccination or negative COVID test.
“This is language that protects freedom and liberty and privacy of health information during an endemic,” Sander said.
Democrats objected to a lack of exceptions for events at nursing homes or other places with at-risk populations.
“This would make it where they can’t say that we just want to make sure people who come to this event are vaccinated or negative,” Merideth said.
The language targeting Planned Parenthood is the same as used in a supplemental budget bill that generated a lawsuit in March. It bars abortion providers or their affiliates from being reimbursed through the state’s Medicaid program.