Missouri governor backs casino fees to benefit veterans

Wednesday, January 18, 2012 | 8:29 p.m. CST

JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri casinos would pay an extra dollar per gambler to boost funding for state-run veterans' homes under a plan detailed Wednesday by Gov. Jay Nixon's administration.

State budget director Linda Luebbering said a $1 increase for the per-patron fees that casinos are paying could generate about $50 million a year. The additional revenue would provide a dedicated funding source to operate nursing homes for Missouri veterans and could help pay to build another facility.

The seven homes operated by the Missouri Veterans Commission provide skilled nursing care to military veterans who lived in Missouri for at least 180 days and were  honorably discharged from the military. The state currently has 1,350 beds, but 1,691 people on the waiting list.

The facilities are located in Cameron, Cape Girardeau, Mexico, Mount Vernon, St. James, St. Louis and Warrensburg.

Nixon, this week, released his budget proposals for the 2013 fiscal year, which starts July 1.  The proposals included a funding boost for veterans' homes. Ideas about how to best raise those funds, including raising the casino fee, are included in several bills that already have been filed.

The budget for operating the veterans' homes is more than $70 million, which includes a mix of general state revenues, charges that residents pay and reimbursement from the federal government.

Several years of tight state budgets, however, means the proportion coming from general state revenue has shrunk from about 40 percent to 22 percent. This drop-off has prompted the Missouri Veterans Commission to tap into surplus money in its accounts.

"It's coming to the point where if something doesn't get done, there will be some issues down the road as far as funding," commission spokesman Daniel Bell said. "The legislature, they're aware, we've got their support. We hope this year to get some form of permanent funding solution."

Majority House Republicans have said developing a dedicated funding source for the veterans' homes is a priority. Several bills have been filed taking slightly different approaches, and the House Veterans Committee could consider the measures during a Tuesday hearing.

Rep. David Day, the chairman of the House Veterans Committee, said he supports any proposal to help with funding for veterans' homes, including an increase for casino's per-patron fee. Day said he wants to push forward with the measure, which seemed most likely to win final approval.

"These are the men and women that served our country. Without their efforts, most of everything else we do wouldn't be possible," said Day, R-Dixon. "I've just always had a place in my heart for veterans and what they do for our state and nation, and I think if there is any group that we ought to be taking care of to the best of our ability, it's them."

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, expressed support for finding new revenue streams for veterans' homes but reserved judgment Wednesday on whether the casino fee increase was the best means. House Budget Committee Chairman Ryan Silvey, R-Kansas City, also took a cautious approach.

"Generally in a down economy, the legislature has not really embraced tax or fee increases, so I think it's possibly a tough sell, but we'll see," said House Budget Committee Chairman Ryan Silvey, R-Kansas City.

If it appears lawmakers are unlikely to approve a casino fee increase or some other new revenue source for veterans homes, Luebbering said the governor's administration would support efforts to take the funds from elsewhere in the budget.

"We'll make sure there is enough money in the veterans' budget to continue operating all the veterans' homes," she said.


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