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Panel OKs extra money for meth fight, energy aid for the poor

Monday, January 14, 2008 | 11:51 p.m. CST; updated 11:52 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY — A House committee on Monday approved almost $20 million in extra spending for police, the poor and the Conservation Department.

Of that, $1.9 million would go to help pay for meth lab investigations, $6.4 million is for a state program that helps the poor pay their heating and cooling bills, and $10 million is for conservation projects and facilities. Each of the bills was approved without dissent.

House Budget Chairman Allen Icet, R-Wildwood, said he wants to have the bills up for a floor vote by Thursday. That’s necessary because the legislature must still consider the main budget to cover additional spending not included in the $21.5 billion budget that the legislature approved last May.

The money for the meth investigations had come from the federal government, but the program lost funding when Congress made it harder for lawmakers to tuck pet projects into the budget through earmarks. The Missouri Sheriff’s Methamphetamine Relief Team, which performs the investigations, was created in 2001 and is organized by the Cape Girardeau County Sheriff’s Office.

Sheriff John Jordan said lawmakers have been content to pass laws like one that limits peoples’ ability to buy cold medicines such as Sudafed. But he said the state has been apathetic about spending money to investigate the labs themselves.

“The state has sat on the sidelines for eight years,” he told the House Budget Committee. “Although they’ve enacted some good laws — the Sudo law is the best thing since peanut butter, but I’ve been calling for that since 2001.”

Federal funding has wavered from more than $3 million to just over $1 million, and the state has contributed a total of $243,000. Over that time, Jordan said, investigations using those funds accounted for most meth lab busts. In at least two years, nine of every 10 labs shut down across the state were tied to the program.

Jordan told the panel that the federal money is available again in October. But he said most other federal sources focus on equipment, and without state money for staffing, the program would be “in the obituary column.”

“You can have all the lights, bells and whistles, but it won’t take a meth lab down,” he said. “You can have all the equipment, but it takes men in the field.”

The panel also approved the maximum funding for a state program that helps with heating and cooling costs for low-income Missourians. The program splits its aid into two categories — one for those who are in imminent danger of losing their heat and a one-time subsidy.

It’s the third year lawmakers have been asked to approve the money. Some Democrats on the committee questioned why the funding for the aid, called Utilicare, has not been written into the regular state budget.

Besides direct assistance, Utilicare also allows the state to help reduce energy needs by giving people money to weatherize their homes. This year, however, program administrators estimate higher energy costs will require them to cut out that segment.

“We have to find money to do that or else we’re just throwing money into the wind and they’re cold winds,” said Rep. Kathlyn Fares, R-St. Louis.

The spending proposals must be approved by another House panel before coming to the floor. But because they are supplemental spending items recommended by the governor, the proposals cannot be amended — just accepted or denied.


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