JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri lawmakers completed passage of a $22.4 billion operating budget Wednesday that would increase state spending at a greater rate than its expected revenue growth.
Missouri’s operating budget for the 2009 fiscal year boosts spending for public schools, extends college scholarships to upper-income families and allots more money to medical providers without expanding health coverage for the poor.
The state is able to spend faster than its projected tax intake by tapping into money left over from previous years. Yet the election-year budget still appropriates significantly less than what Gov. Matt Blunt had proposed in January.
The difference is attributable largely to legislative inaction on Blunt’s marquee proposal — a $375 million plan to expand government-subsidized health insurance to lower-income working Missourians. After running into trouble in the House, the plan got axed from the budget.
Lawmakers also ignored several other new spending proposals put forward by Blunt, including the restoration of dental and optical coverage cut for adult Medicaid recipients in 2005, and the expansion of Missouri college slots for health care students.
Some of those initiatives fell victim to financial concerns, which deepened in the past couple of weeks as House and Senate members negotiated the final details of the budget. On Friday, Blunt’s administration commissioner warned the state may take in less money than forecast for the fiscal year that ends June 30. That means the state could start out with less money than anticipated for the 2009 fiscal year that begins July 1.
Even so, Missouri may not face immediate financial troubles. That’s because the governor and lawmakers set aside $200 million last year in case the economy worsened, and state agencies didn’t spend all the money appropriated to them.
Next year’s budget would spend some of that surplus. Missouri’s expenditures from its general revenue fund would rise by 5.4 percent over this year, while its income is projected to rise by just 3.4 percent.
Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Gary Nodler, R-Joplin, described the spending blueprint as the “best budget attainable in the political environment we have with the temptation of (spending) the large balance” in Missouri’s treasury. But the spending pace is not sustainable in future years, Nodler added.
The budget includes a $121 million increase in basic aid for schools, raising the total to almost $3 billion. But lawmakers provided school districts no additional money for buses, despite rising fuel prices.
Other state agencies will receive more money to cover increased fuel and food costs.
Lawmakers also pumped nearly $96 million into the Access Missouri scholarship program, created last year as the state’s means of providing college aid to students in financial need. The one-third increase in funding will allow the scholarships to be given to families with adjusted gross incomes of as much as $200,000, up significantly from the current income cutoff, or about $72,000.
State employees will get a 3 percent pay increase — the amount proposed by Blunt. House members had advocated for a $1,056 pay raise for all employees, an alternative that would have given more to the lowest-paid employees and less to the higher-salaried employees than a percentage increase.
Rep. Bill Deeken, R-Jefferson City, was irate that House budget negotiators caved in to demands of the governor and senators, who argued supervisory employees needed to be paid more to keep them from bolting to the private sector.
“There’s people out there making that $20,000 or $30,000 — they’re doing the work while the others making $80,000 are sitting in the office looking good,” Deeken said.
Various health care providers would get larger increases than state employees.
Medicaid payments to physicians would rise by more than 7 percent and payments to dentists and nursing homes would go up by 5 percent. Funding increases for nursing homes would bring their average state payment to $126 a day per patient instead of the current rate of $120 a day.
Supporters say the state needs to increase payments to doctors and dentists, in particular, to encourage them to treat Medicaid patients. As it is, Missouri’s Medicaid program pays just a portion of what those health care professionals would receive for providing the same service to elderly patients covered under the federal Medicare program.
The budget boosts money for grants to life-sciences researchers and provides the first installment for a new Highway Patrol radio system that could also allow local emergency responders to better communicate with each other.
Lawmakers provided $1.5 million for anti-tobacco programs targeting youth — a threefold increase for such efforts that nonetheless pales in comparison when put in the context that Missouri’s spending on tobacco prevention programs ranks next to last nationally.
Lawmakers also allotted money for several low-budget initiatives. An example is a $171,000 expenditure to promote Missouri beef products.
Among the items left out of the budget was a new $143,000 Highway Patrol program that would have allowed people to sign up for automatic e-mail alerts whenever a registered sex offender moves into their area.
Nodler called the proposal “just plain silly,” noting that people already can go to a Highway Patrol Web site to determine whether registered sex offenders live nearby.
But Rep. Margaret Donnelly, D-St. Louis, wished the program would have survived.
“It seemed to me that would have been a good program, particularly for parents who were concerned about somebody they heard about,” Donnelly said.