JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri House budget writers reversed Gov. Jay Nixon's proposed cuts to public colleges and universities Wednesday while sharply trimming aid for the blind in a $24 billion budget plan for next year.
Proposed elimination of the Supplemental Aid to the Blind has been the most controversial element of the budget this year, prompting opposition from the top Senate Republican and a rebuke from the Democratic governor shortly after the House Budget Committee approved its spending plan Wednesday.
The $28 million program covers medical care for more than 2,800 blind people who earn too much to qualify for the Medicaid program for the poor. House Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Ryan Silvey, R-Kansas City, has proposed eliminating the program, noting that there are not comparable services for other types of disabilities.
But the budget panel decided Wednesday to set aside $6 million for a slimmed down aid program for the blind. To do that, lawmakers shifted $2 million from marketing and international trade offices in the Department of Economic Development and allotted $4 million from expected revenues the state would receive if lawmakers pass a separate bill eliminating a sales tax exemption for newspaper publishers.
Silvey said the funding is designed for a transitional program with an income test focused on those whose incomes put them closest to eligibility for Medicaid benefits. He estimated $6 million would be enough to provide full medical benefits for about 600 people.
Nixon has opposed efforts to cut aid to the blind. The governor said in a written statement Wednesday that "slashing health care from more than 2,000 needy blind Missourians simply isn't an option. Full funding for this program is the only way to ensure that needy blind Missourians have access to the critical health care services they need."
House Democrats also said lawmakers must continue looking for ways to boost funding for the blind.
Despite disagreement over assistance for the blind, there was little of the tension that frequently has marked budget debates. The House Budget Committee breezed through a relatively small packet of amendments in about two hours, and the full chamber later this month could consider the roughly $24 billion operating budget for the 2013 fiscal year that starts July 1.
"It's kind of as good as you can expect with no new revenue coming in," said Rep. Sara Lampe, the top-ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee.
The House Budget Committee also approved more funding for education than Nixon recommended.
Nixon in January proposed a cut of $106 million — or 12.5 percent — for public colleges and universities. A month later, Nixon proposed to offset part of that cut by using $40 million from an anticipated national settlement with mortgage lenders. The committee reversed all the cuts and generally left higher education institutions with what they have received this year — with a little extra for Southeast Missouri State University.
"I want to make sure we fund education in this state," Silvey said.
Missouri school districts also stand to get a little extra. The budget includes more than $3 billion in basic aid for school districts, though that is $472 million less than what is called for by the state's funding formula after several years of underfunding. Nixon proposed adding an extra $5 million into the formula, which he has trumpeted as providing a record level of school funding. The House panel added an extra dollar to Nixon's proposal.
Silvey said the proposed increases are small compared with what is included in the funding formula, and he does not want Nixon to be able to claim credit.
The Budget Committee also reversed a $49 million cut for the Department of Conservation recommended by a House appropriations committee. Money for the agency comes through a dedicated sales tax, so the funds could not have been plugged into the budget elsewhere.