The Missouri House on Tuesday gave first-round approval to a set of budget bills spending $46.2 billionRepublicans beating repeated Democratic efforts to tap into the state’s record surplus.
The budget includes increases in higher education funding, both for institutions and scholarships, as well as funding for one of the most contentious issues of the past year, the expansion of Medicaid. During the debate, Republicans blocked Democratic amendments to dramatically increase funding for school transportation, teacher pay and home health care for people with disabilities.
The biggest point of contention at the start of the debate was whether to dip into the general revenue surplus that could be $3 billion or more by the end of the fiscal year in 2023. Governor Mike Parson’s Original Budget Proposal predicted a $1.5 billion surplus and cuts in the House Budget Committee were to bring it to $1.8 billion.
But revenues are growing at a steady pace, far exceeding expectations. Instead of contracting 0.5% as estimated in December, tax receipts increased 5.6% in the first nine months of the fiscal year. This would generate an unforeseen $686 million by June 30 and make the starting base for the coming year even bigger.
The House operates under a balancing rule that prohibits Members from increasing general spending in one area without reducing it in another. Democratic House Leader Crystal Quade of Springfield tried unsuccessfully to convince the House to suspend that rule and use some 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 money was the safest course.
“You’re going to hear constantly across the aisle that we’re not spending enough money,” House Budget Committee Chairman Cody Smith, R-Carthage, said.
During the debate, State Rep. Peter Merideth of St. Louis, a ranking Democrat on the Budget Committee, repeatedly tried to tap into the general revenue surplus without finding cuts elsewhere. He tried to spend $100 million on school grants to raise teachers’ salaries, add $215 million to school transportation needs, and provide more than $100 million more to state colleges and universities.
Most of his significant amendments were never voted on 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 have also failed, with few exceptions, in most other attempts to change the budget plan, which spends nearly $1.5 billion less than Parson proposed.
In a few cases, they’ve succeeded, including a plan by State Rep. Betsy Fogle to shift $20 million in federal emergency child care funds to programs to help child care agencies. State and small businesses to provide care and to increase scholarships, both based on need. Access Missouri program and “Bright Flight” scholarship program for high achieving students.
To save general revenue, the committee cut Parson’s proposal for a $500 million deposit into the state retirement system. He also scaled back several of the governor’s proposals regarding the use of federal stimulus funds.
Toward the end of the debate, Merideth attempted to restore every dollar cut from Parson’s stimulus package.
“What I see here is not a plan,” he said of the bill passed by the committee. “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, hey, let’s scale this down because we’re just not sure yet.”
Smith, however, said the bill supports Parson’s plan but allows for later flexibility for programs that don’t work as promised.
“We take it in small pieces,” Smith said.
Two burning 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 for debate Tuesday.
Every bill now has a provision sponsored by Rep. Chris Sander, R-Lone Jack, prohibiting any state government department, or any public school or agency using public funds, from holding an event requiring a vaccination or a negative COVID test.
“It’s language that protects the freedom and privacy of health information during an endemic,” Sander said.
Democrats objected to the lack of exceptions for events at nursing homes or other venues with at-risk populations.
“It would make sure they couldn’t say we just want to make sure people who come to this event are vaccinated or HIV-negative,” Merideth said.
The language targeting Planned Parenthood is the same as that used in a supplemental money bill that generated a lawsuit in March. It prohibits abortion providers or their affiliates from being reimbursed by the state Medicaid program.
On some spending issues, bipartisan support saved draft amendments. the Rock Island Trail, a park like the Katy Trail that would be created from an old rail line, has survived two amendments. One would have cut off the $69 million requested by Parson and another would have delayed any work on the trail until the landowners’ lawsuits over property claims are complete.
Legislators who live along the Katy Trail and those who would see new tourism on the Rock Island Trail fought for funding.
Rep. Tim Taylor, R-Boonville, said his community has benefited in many ways since the Katy Trail opened in the 1990s.
“We have prospered,” he said, “and these towns and villages along Rock Island are going to prosper, just like along the Katy Trail.”