The Missouri Senate signed off on a $24 billion budget plan early today that would provide a raise to the lowest-paid state workers in the nation and spare blind residents from a potential cut to their government-funded health care plan.
Senate passage of the budget came only after a coalition of nine Republican senators agreed to drop a two-day stalling effort when they gained a variety of concessions that did relatively little to change the bottom line of the proposed spending plan for the fiscal year that starts July 1. In fact, after talking about the need for more cuts, some of the dissident Republican senators failed in an effort to strip the employee pay raise and then provided the winning margin on a vote to add money to the blind health care program.
It was unclear if the budget passed by the Senate was balanced.
"I think it's close," said Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia.
The Republican-led Legislature faces a May 11 constitutional deadline to send a final budget to Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon. A conference committee of House and Senate negotiators could start meeting as soon as next week to reconcile the differences between the Senate budget and a version passed last month by the House.
Both chambers' versions would hold funding flat for public colleges and universities, opting against a cut recommended by Nixon, and would provide a slight increase in basic state aid for public K-12 school districts. Because those education items are the same in both versions, that funding essentially is locked in for the final version of Missouri's budget.
Nixon originally had proposed a 2 percent raise for all state employees, regardless of their income, that would not have begun until Jan. 1, 2013, which is halfway through the next fiscal year. As passed by the House, the proposed budget would have provided a 2 percent pay raise — to begin July 1 — for workers earning up to $70,000 annually. That was scaled back by the Senate to apply to employees earning up to $45,000 annually, a threshold that would cover about 82 percent of Missouri's workforce.
According to 2010 figures from the U.S. Census Bureau, Missouri ranked last among all states with an average yearly salary of $36,985 for its state employees, excluding those who work at public colleges and universities. Missouri employees have not received a general pay increase since 2009.
"We've got state employees who are basically the working poor," said Schaefer, a proponent of the proposed pay hike.
Senators voted 17-15 to defeat an amendment by Senate Majority Leader Tom Dempsey that would have eliminated the pay raise. Dempsey offered the amendment after negotiations with the nine dissident Republicans, who had targeted the pay raise as part of a list of about a dozen changes they sought. Dempsey expressed concern that state revenues — particularly from the Missouri Lottery — might not meet expectations and that the pay raise would come at the expense of other state services.
"I'm just trying to be realistic. You can't spend money you don't have," said Dempsey, R-St. Charles.
Despite voicing concerns the budget was out of balance, seven of the nine senators who had stalled the budget later joined a narrow majority of colleagues in an 18-16 vote to restore funding for the blind health care benefits. The roughly $28 million program provides health coverage to 2,858 blind people who earn too much to qualify for the state's traditional Medicaid program for the poor.
The House had voted to scrap the blind health care program and replace it with a new, significantly slimmed down version. The Senate Appropriations Committee had taken a different approach earlier this month, opting to fund the current program with $18 million in general revenues, $1.4 million from another source and cover the remaining gap by charging participants premiums, co-payments and deductibles.
The amendment approved Wednesday added $8.6 million to the program, essentially restoring it to its current level.
"The blind should have their shot to be fully funded," just like the University of Missouri or state employees desiring raises, said Sen. Jason Crowell, R-Cape Girardeau, a leader among the group of Republicans that had pushed for additional budget changes.
Nixon, who has decried possible budget cuts to the blind health care program as "dead wrong," urged lawmakers Wednesday to keep full funding.
"For decades, Missouri has provided this efficient and compassionate program that offers essential health services for blind Missourians with very limited financial means," Nixon said.
The budget passed by the Senate also drops a proposed cut — which had been endorsed by the Senate Appropriations Committee — to eliminate subsidized child care for an estimated 3,860 children and reduce subsidies for an additional 2,330 children.
Also squeezed out of the budget by both the House and Senate was a proposed $50 million expenditure of federal grants to update the computer system used by Missouri's Medicaid system. Few deny that the new system would make it easier for people to enroll, reduce the potential for fraud and allow for more effective data analysis. But the nine dissident Republicans fought to keep the money out of the budget because of a concern that it could serve as the framework for the eventual implementation of a health insurance exchange under the new federal health care law signed by President Barack Obama.