Missouri House backs off proposed cuts to senior meals

Wednesday, March 25, 2009 | 5:02 p.m. CDT; updated 8:24 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, March 25, 2009

JEFFERSON CITY — The House was replenishing money Wednesday for seniors' home-delivered meals as Republicans backed away from some of their proposed cuts to Missouri's health and social service programs.

Majority-party House Republicans were expected to remain steadfast, however, in their opposition to Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon's plan to cover tens of thousands of additional low-income Missourians under the Medicaid health care program.

The reversal on seniors' food funding came after elderly residents around the state sent thousands of autographed paper plates to lawmakers in a symbolic lobbying effort coordinated by organizations that provide the meals.

The meals are delivered through senior centers run by local Area Agencies on Aging. Under the proposed $2.2 million cut, seniors could have received several hundred thousand fewer home-delivered meals.

That could have forced some seniors to become malnourished or even be placed into nursing homes, senior advocates said.

"The only way they're staying at home right now is the fact that someone comes into their home every day, brings them a meal and checks on their well-being," said Dorothy Knowles, president of the Missouri Alliance on Area Agencies on Aging.

Republicans and Democrats alike expressed support for seniors' meals Wednesday, but the program's funding highlighted a partisan divide over the way in which the House budget has been prepared.

The $22.8 billion budget by Republican House leaders would spend a portion of Missouri's estimated $4 billion of federal economic stimulus money for ongoing state operations, but not as much as sought by Nixon and Democratic lawmakers.

As a result, House Republicans are proposing cuts to numerous programs, ranging from tourism marketing to Amtrak passenger train service to special summer academies for gifted students. Because of House rules, lawmakers are precluded from offering amendments to restore those cuts by spending additional federal stimulus money and must instead offset spending increases by cutting elsewhere in the budget.

On Wednesday, Republicans gradually were restoring funding for seniors' meals by cutting amounts of money equal to the salaries of various executive department employees who lobby the legislature. They said it was inappropriate for "taxpayer funded lobbyists" to be taking positions on legislation.

Democrats derided the amendments as a political ploy against the Democratic governor's administration. They noted Republican lawmakers had not sought to eliminate funding for executive branch "legislative liaisons" when Republican Gov. Matt Blunt was in charge.

"This whole budget is a cheap political stunt," complained House Minority Leader Paul LeVota, D-Independence.

Among other budget changes Wednesday, the House reversed the proposed cuts to Amtrak. It also eliminated funding for ethanol plant subsidies to add money for the developmentally disabled and school busing and to lessen the Tourism Division cut. House Budget Committee Chairman Allen Icet, R-Wildwood, pledged to restore the ethanol subsidies in a yet-to-be-unveiled bill spending additional federal stimulus money.

The proposed House budget provides the full $3 billion called for to fully fund K-12 public schools. It also holds harmless from cuts the core operating budgets of public colleges and universities, as well as the state's main scholarship programs.

"We have more scholarship money going out to students right now than we have in the history of the state," said Rep. Mike Thomson, R-Maryville, chairman of the House appropriations committee for education.

But the House budget does not fund Nixon's proposed scholarship expansion for certain graduates of community colleges to continue tuition-free at four-year universities.

It also leaves out Nixon's proposal to restore Medicaid coverage to 35,000 low-income parents by using $52 million from hospitals and $93 million in federal funds.

Republican House leaders have resisted the program as an enlargement of government welfare.

In protest of the House budget, about two dozen people with Mexico, Mo.-based Grass Roots Organizing set up plastic toy bowling pins outside the office of House Speaker Ron Richard, R-Joplin, a bowling alley owner. They were illustrating their claim that Republicans were "throwing social service programs into the gutter."


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