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House committee puts final touches on budget

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – The Missouri House Budget Committee took the next step in moving the state’s budget forward on Tuesday night. In a crowded room, lawmakers managed to advance all of the operating bills to the House after more than six hours of putting the final touches on Missouri’s more than $27 billion budget.

Gov. Eric Greitens had recommended a total of $572 million in cuts to the budget for next year after halting funds in the amount of $146 million to the current year’s budget. And while the largest hits were absorbed by higher education, lawmakers made cuts to nearly every department.

The budget committee weighed their options on dozens of amendments, re-allocating funding to a number of areas before finally signing off on the bills late Tuesday night.

Republicans managed to swing their weight on several issues of contention, including funding for voter photo identification. Democrats sought to increase the amount of money on the latest spending blueprint by $3 million, which Rep. Peter Merideth, D-St. Louis, proposed to be taken out of the state’s $16 million lottery advertising budget.

Peter Merideth
Rep. Peter Merideth

Merideth argued that $13 million should be sufficient to advertise the lottery while increasing the funding for voter ID from $1.4 million to $4.4 million. But Republicans shot down his amendment, arguing that the Constitution requires that lottery money is used to support education or the lottery.

The House panel also rejected a plan put forward by Rep. Deb Lavender, D- Kirkwood, which sought to take unused funds from a number of boards and commissions to save the “circuit breaker” tax, a tax break for seniors and disabled renters. The budget committee’s chairman, Rep. Scott Fitzpatrick, R-Shell Knob, wants to eliminate that tax break to address the budget shortfalls, brought on by a lagging revenue. The measure was voted down, calling it a one-time fix for the issue of budget strains.

The committee’s approved budget also does not fully fund the requested budget for the Missouri State Employees Retirement System. The MOSERS board of trustees requested an additional $45 million from the state to help cover costs in the fiscal year that begins July 1. The decision to not extend those funds is not expected to have an immediate impact on benefit payments to retirees but could have long-term consequences if the under-funding becomes a habit.

Rep. Deb Lavender
Rep. Deb Lavender

Perhaps the biggest winner of the night was Rep. Deb Lavender and the Missouri public defenders. Thanks to an amendment from Lavender, the public defenders could get a one-time funding hike of roughly $6.8 million during the next fiscal year. Lavender called on the committee to re-allocate funding from the attorney general’s office, used for consumer-protection efforts, to instead be used to address the ongoing issue of an overworked public defender system.

The committee also passed a stipulation ensuring that no MoDOT funding will be used for toll roads and approved a requirement that would make the usage of the state airplane to be recorded on sites like FlightAware, saying it would promote transparency.

Rep. Fitzpatrick’s plan also fully funds the education foundation formula with a $45 million increase in spending, something that has been a struggle in past years. Last year, the legislature changed the formula, making it easier to reach a number that would be considered “fully funded.”

The budget now heads to the House floor. Once the House debates and votes it out, the budget then heads to the Senate. The House on Monday approved a bill offers $242 million in supplemental spending, with $45 million coming out of the state’s pockets. Fitzpatrick stated that most of the spending would be for possible Medicaid expenses.

The House also passed the appropriations bill, HB 14, with a vote of 139-10, with 13 representatives absent.