JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – As the Missouri House prepares to take up the House Budget Committee’s work this week, we take a look at a number of things in the budget that are noteworthy for a variety of reasons. We start with number one: the education foundation formula.
1. Fully funding the education foundation formula
It’s a move that has been praised by a number of people. House Budget Committee chairman Scott Fitzpatrick, R-Shell Knob, put together a plan with the committee that would fully fund the state’s education foundation formula, which was created by the legislature to ensure that every school district has the proper funding needed to provide education to grades K-12. That formula was changed last year, lowering the overall number, but the issue still remains as to whether the fully funded formula will be allowed to pass. House Democrats point to the fact that while it may be fully funded, some of those funds came from other education funds, meaning that they are receiving less funding in order to meet the goal.
But the real concern is this: the Senate has already hinted that the foundation formula will not pass through their chamber with its full appropriated money.
The top priority for Democrats with the budget this week is Medicaid. The current budget that will appear on the House floor doesn’t fund all of the increase requests for Medicaid, and the minority party’s chief concern is the people who would be hurt by these cuts. Knowing that Medicaid is probably the largest chunk of the budget, Republicans have looked for ways to cut back on the giant costs, while still providing as much of the same care as they can. But rising costs have plagued the state budget for years, something the supermajority wants to keep in check.
“Not only are we not passing legislation for Medicaid expansion, they’re even putting in the budget language that prohibits spending,” Rep. Peter Merideth said.
One thing is for certain: this will be a major topic of debate on the House floor as the chamber seeks to push through the budget this week, and will most likely be the longest discussed.
3. Circuit breaker
One thing that has sparked tension between the two parties is a tax credit program known as the “circuit breaker tax.” Republicans cut $56 million in proposed funds toward elderly and disabled renters, which Democrats have vocally opposed. An amendment by Rep. Deb Lavender sought to shift money from several various boards to fill that void in funding, but it was struck down by a voice vote. Republicans point to additional money going to home community-based services and increased asset limits in Medicaid, saying that they’ll actually be giving senior citizens more than the previous year.
4. Voter ID funding
Perhaps one of the most controversial items, the funding for implementation of voter photo identification has been the subject of many debates between the two parties. Under the current budget proposals, $1.4 million has been set aside in order to educate voters about the new law voted in place this past November. But Democrats argue that isn’t enough, pointing to the estimate from former Secretary of State Jason Kander, who had estimated it at roughly $4-5 million. Rep. Merideth proposed that they give it no funding until such a time that it can be properly funded and organized, asking that the $1.4 million be instead transferred to the state’s technology investing fund. That measure did not pass, but one can safely assume Democrats will continue pushing against it as the appropriation bills make their way through the House.
5. Security measures changing
Many people were perplexed when the security at the state capitol was increased, with metal detectors being placed at entrances. Funding for the security checkpoints was put in place for the first time in over a decade, with metal detectors, x-ray machines and guards greeting the incoming visitors. Last fall, the state spent roughly $415,000 to buy three metal detectors, 25 wands, and equipment to scan badges. Those funds came from a $40 million bond issue for Capitol repairs, which became a hot item earlier in this session for the House Budget Committee. But that same funding has been stripped in the state budget that passed through the House Budget Committee last week. Instead, the committee gave their approval to allow the hiring of five more officers by the Missouri Capitol Police.
6. Public defenders
It was a move that caught many off-guard but passed through with relative ease. While marking up the budget last week, the committee signed off on an amendment that would take $6.8 million from the Attorney General’s Office and transfer it to the Office of the Public Defender. That office has been struggling for some time with a large caseload and an underfunded staff. The Director made waves last year when he issued a letter calling on then-Gov. Jay Nixon to take on a case, as he is a practicing attorney. While the amendment, filed by Rep. Deb Lavender, passed through the committee, many wonder if it will be allowed through the House. Some suggest the measure passed more as a slap on the hand to the Attorney General’s Office than anything, and assume it will be changed back this week on the House floor.
7. Already spending more this year
Missouri House members advanced a proposal last week to spend roughly $242 million more than expected in the 2017 fiscal year, which ends in June. In a voice vote last Monday, the House gave initial approval to the additional state spending for this fiscal year, which ends in June. About $45 million would come from state general revenue, with the rest coming from federal and other funds. Republican House Budget Committee Chairman Scott Fitzpatrick said most of the money was for unanticipated Medicaid expenses, as well as roughly $10 million for MoDOT vehicle replacements and equipment.
8. Budget crisis?
The estimated budget shortfall has everyone on edge. But the question is always about how much revenue the state is bringing in. But the most recent revenue statements that have been released, the numbers have been right around where they need to be to make everything work. The numbers released at the end of February showed state revenue up by about 4.9 percent. But, as always, no one can actually know for certain what the revenue numbers will be, and with the budget being required to pass by the end of session, a lot of the decisions are based on educated guesses from previous trends. But a number of analysts will also say the situation may not be as dire as it seems, knowing that as more revenue comes in, more funds can be released.
And, in the event that more money comes in, and revenue allows for more funding, everyone involved in the process looks smart for it. In the long run, being overly conservative and cautious with the budget allows two things: preparation for budget cuts, and celebrations if funds exceed expectation.
Benjamin Peters was a reporter for The Missouri Times and Missouri Times Magazine and also produced the #MoLeg Podcast. He joined The Missouri Times in 2016 after working as a sports editor and TV news producer in mid-Missouri. Benjamin is a graduate of Missouri State University in Springfield.