Behind last minute budget dealings at the Capitol

With one week left in the legislative session for the Missouri General Assembly, lawmakers are working to hammer out details on the state budget after the Senate passed a proposal Thursday night that would use a sweep of funds to help bolster revenue. This move to use monies from certain organizations’ membership funds has been previously voted down in the House of Representatives during its budget process, however, and will likely be the focus of a conference committee of senators and representatives meeting this week.
One of three Lake area state representatives, Republican Rep. David Wood of District 58 is on the House budget committee and is chairing the House Appropriations Committee for Health, Mental Health and Social Services.
According to Wood, it was still unclear as of Monday morning whether the “sweep of funds” could generate enough to cover the budget shortfall, if it is even legal.
“There are funds created in statute that are for different organizations.  Individuals that belong to those organizations pay a fee and it is deposited into the fund that is created for the organization to use to pay for administration or projects. If those fund balances get too high then the legislature has the right to go in and take the excess and put it into general revenue. The Senate exempted several organizations and then required all other funds be swept into general revenue to cover the shortfall in the budget,” explained Wood in his Capitol Report newsletter. “I have voted against this move when it was proposed in the House of Representatives because this is one time money and I am not in favor of taking money away from organizations that might have been saving up for a large project. There is also some question as to the Constitutionality of this sweep being done outside of the budget process. Smarter people than me will be making that decision. Since the Senate passed the bill and the budget with this funding stream then it makes the conference committee between the House of Representatives and Senate very interesting next week.”
Some of the largest or wealthiest funds of the more than 700 that exist were apparently exempted from the sweep by the Senate, Wood told the Lake Sun on Monday. The constitutionality of the proposal has also been questioned by Gov. Eric Greitens, Wood said.
“If you have to be a member of an organization and pay dues to promote that profession, then all of a sudden we steal some of it to pay for a shortfall, you’re probably not going to be real happy about that,” said Wood.
While there are numerous such funds, even without those exempted, each fund has to maintain a certain minimum level and only a certain percentage of excess money beyond can be used in the sweep. The state budget director’s office is still working to calculate how much money would be made available if the House approved the measure and it is constitutional.
Approximately $35.4 million is needed to cover the gap.
On their end, Missouri senators were looking for a way to soften cuts to in-home health care and nursing home services as proposed in the House-approved budget.
According to Wood, the House of Representatives was banking on the passage of a bill that would have removed senior renters from eligibility for a property tax credit to fund $55 million of the budget.
The House plan would put more than 8,300 seniors and people with disabilities at risk of losing these Medicaid benefits, according to reporting by the Associated Press. Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Dan Brown said the Senate’s plan could provide relief to these Missouri residents though it would not eliminate cuts to these services entirely.
These services for patients are determined through a points system based on 15 categories weighted for severity of the health issue. According to Wood, the Senate plan would allow the points level to be 21 compared to 24 under the House budget and a health care provider rate cut would be 1.5 percent instead of 3 to 3.5 percent. A lower point level for services means more patients could qualify.
Nursing home residents who previously qualified for that care would not be kicked out of a facility if there points level no longer reached the right level, but new potential patients would be impacted; in-home health care is evaluated on an annual basis however and previously-qualifying patients could potentially lose that service, Wood explained.
The conference committee of senators and representatives will seek to come to terms either to go one way or another (again if the fund sweep is legal), or possibly make a compromise.
The issue is an anticipated lack of growth in revenue, as was seen this year which led to cuts by former Gov. Jay Nixon and new Gov. Eric Greitens. State revenue increases have not been keeping up with increases in costs.
According to reporting by the Associated Press, the budget plan increases funding for public elementary and secondary schools, hitting a revised funding goal for schools that planned to provide nearly $3.4 billion in basic aid to school districts.The plan also avoided a proposed cut to school transportation funding.
Public colleges and universities, however, would be cut 6.6 percent.
While there has been “a little bit of drama” with the budget process this session, Wood said the dysfunction being reported at the Capitol is related to the tough decisions that have to be made when there is a shortfall of funds.
“When you’re having to make cuts, no matter what you do you’re going to make somebody made,” he said Monday after a Capitol Report on Friday that commented, “This is not a job for the faint at heart but I still hold out hope that someday we can figure out a way to work together. I work for the people of the 58th District and you are the only ones that have the ability to fire me. I have been asked to vote for items that are not good for our District and I have said no. I believe that those people asking for these votes should respect the process and accept my explanation and vote but that is not always true. They need to understand that government works best when we realize that not everyone has the same priorities. I have never asked another legislator to vote against what they believe is right in order to pass a bill and I understand that we are all different. This is what leads to the dysfunction.  Many legislators and members of the executive branch get very passionate about their priorities and they lose sight that the majority of votes rules in the end. It is very difficult to admit that the legislation may not be the right thing to do for the entire state. When a large number of these battles form then it looks like we are fighting all the time and getting nothing accomplished but that is not necessarily true.”
Reporting by Summer Ballentine and Katie Kull of the Associated Press contributed to this story.