JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri House Republicans accused the governor's office Wednesday of attempted bribery to win votes for a health care bill that they later rejected.
Gov. Jay Nixon's office said the claims were an attempt to distract attention from the bill, which would use $146.9 million to fund health care for 35,000 Missourians.
House Bill 11 was two steps away from Nixon's desk when it was voted down 85-75 in the House and sent back to committee for revision by House and Senate budget leaders. All three Columbia representatives — Democrats Chris Kelly, Mary Still and Stephen Webber — voted for the bill.
The committee, which adjourned late Wednesday night, agreed to House Republicans' request to remove the $146.9 million for Medicaid from the $7.47 billion bill. This eliminated Nixon's recommendation for restoring Medicaid to Missourians who lost health care under former Gov. Matt Blunt's administration.
Under the now-defunct language, House Bill 11 would have taken $52.6 million from hospitals and $94.3 million of federal money to fund health care for custodial adult parents whose income is at least half the federal poverty level. No general revenue would have been used to fund the health care policy.
In return, House budget leaders said they would pass Republican state Sen. Tom Dempsey's "Show-Me Health Coverage" bill in the House and into conference on Monday.
Dempsey's bill would "provide health care coverage through the private insurance market to low-income working individuals," according to the bill summary. It would fund health care for Missourians whose income is at least half the federal poverty level as well as custodial parents whose earned income meets the full federal poverty level.
House Bill 11 is one of 13 that would determine Missouri's operating budget for fiscal year 2010. House and Senate budget leaders have spent the past week in conference committee to craft compromised versions of the bills.
The 13 bills will face their final reading in the House on Thursday. If they pass the House, they will have one day to pass the Senate before going to Nixon's desk for consideration by Friday, as required by state constitutional law.
Although the original bill had bipartisan support from Senate budget leaders, House Republican budget leaders refused to sign the conference committee version. But with the removal of the $146.9 million for Medicaid, House Bill 11 was unanimously approved in committee.
Rep. Rick Stream, one of the House Republicans who did not sign the original committee bill, said Republicans wanted insurance for the uninsurable, whereas the bill language was directed at only the uninsured.
House Budget Committee chairman Allen Icet, R-Wildwood, said he originally did not sign the bill because the health care proposal does not sufficiently cover able-bodied adults.
But despite his opposition to the bill, Icet passed it on to the House floor for discussion.
"If we were going to keep the budget hostage, I wouldn't have turned the bills in yesterday," Icet said. "That is a hostage situation. Bringing the bills up to the floor for debate is not a hostage situation."
The accusations of bribery — a federal felony if accusations are substantiated — arose during House debate over the bill when one of the top House Republicans broke out in passionate speech and cited "the seedy underbelly of Missouri politics."
Speaker Pro Tem Bryan Pratt, R-Jackson County, accused Nixon's office of offering career advancements to legislators in exchange for votes to pass the bill.
"Oh, how I wish the FBI were wandering the halls today," Pratt said. "Do you know what they would find? The FBI would find walking these halls today comments from the governor's office. 'What do you need? What can I do for you? Can I give you a job? Is there something I can provide special to you?'"
House Democratic floor leader Paul LeVota, D-Independence, immediately came to the governor's defense.
"I ask the pro tem to apologize to our elected governor, the person who represents our state, for any type of wrongdoing," LeVota said after calling a point of order. "That's shameful."
One of the Republican representatives to whom Nixon's office reportedly made illegal offers was Rep. Chris Molendorp, R-Belton. The freshman representative told reporters that as a health insurance agent and member of his local hospital's board, his vote was still undecided when he came to the Statehouse on Wednesday.
But Molendorp said the offer made by Nixon's deputy chief of staff, Dustin Allison, was enough to clinch his vote against the bill's passage.
"The gentleman that called me into the hall said that the governor wanted to know if I shared his vision and that those members who did share his vision — because House Bill 11 was so important to him — would be viewed favorably and if I was interested in a future career change, he was sure that would be looked upon favorably as well," Molendorp said.
"There was no specific job, nor a dollar amount," Molendorp said. "But the implication was unfortunately pretty clear. And as somebody who was on the fence on this bill, it crystallized my position because this was inappropriate."
Nixon's communications director, Jack Cardetti, denied all claims of attempted bribery and called them "an attempt to distract from the issue at hand."
Instead, Cardetti said Republican legislators have been coming to the governor's office to ask for jobs since the transition period began in November.
"While we're committed to a bipartisan administration, we have never offered any state rep a job, nor would we ever offer them a job in exchange for a legislative favor," Cardetti said. "The issue is, do you provide health care to 35,000 Missourians with no cost to taxpayers?
"This was a big vote today," Cardetti said. "It's no wonder the Republicans want to distract people's attention away from it. Obviously they're making baseless accusations here because they don't want to account for their vote today."
When interviewed by reporters, Molendorp displayed Allison's business card and identified him as Nixon's staffer who talked to him. Cardetti confirmed that Allison and other members of Nixon's staff had lobbied both Republican and Democratic representatives to vote for the bill.
"Members of the staff regularly lobby legislators," Cardetti said. Part of the lobbying process involves the exchange of business cards, which Cardetti said explains why Molendorp had Allison's card.