JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri's House gave initial approval to the state's $24 billion operating budget Tuesday with level funding for higher education and cuts to health care for people who are blind.
House Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Ryan Silvey, R-Kansas City, said the House should be proud of the budget they passed.
"We have produced another balanced budget for the state of Missouri," Silvey said.
Missouri started the budget process with a $500 million shortfall from last year because of the expiration of federal stimulus funds and a decrease in the federal government's reimbursement rate for Medicaid costs.
The cuts left some Democrats calling for more revenue as the budget was debated.
Rep. Sara Lampe, D-Springfield, said this budget reflected a choice between higher education and social services programs caused by a reluctance to raise taxes.
"We are making false choices because we have not addressed the revenue stream," Lampe said.
Silvey said the House did the best they could with a certain amount of money.
"A lot of people in this chamber wish we had more money, but the fact of the matter is that we don't ... we have to deal with the now," Silvey said.
Gov. Jay Nixon originally proposed a 15 percent cut to public universities from the last fiscal year in his budget plan. The House was able to reverse those cuts with money from a national mortgage settlement, an action Nixon proposed, and cuts to state welfare programs.
One of the major cuts used to boost higher education came from a program called the Supplemental Aid to the Blind. The program pays the health expenses for 2,800 people who are blind and make too much money to qualify for Medicaid. Blindness is the only condition to have such a fund. The program costs $28 million per year, or $10,000 per person.
Democrats made one attempt to restore money to the program for the blind. Lampe offered an amendment to take $2 million away from a program to drug test welfare recipients and put those funds into the program to help the blind.
In 2011, Nixon signed a bill requiring Temporary Assistance for Needy Families recipients to take a drug test if they were suspected of using controlled substances by a social worker.
"This is our opportunity as a body to turn around somewhat on the cuts to the blind," said Rep. Chris Kelly, D-Columbia.
The amendment was defeated with a bipartisan vote. Silvey said the people in the program for the blind would now be treated like any other person with a disability and would still receive an additional $700 a month from the Blind Pension Fund, which is paid for with the only statewide property tax.
While the House gave initial approval to the budget with the cuts to the program for the blind, Senate President Pro Tem Rob Mayer, R-Dexter, said the Senate does not approve of cutting funds for the program. Nixon also has publicly campaigned against the cuts and released a statement calling the program's elimination "just plain wrong."
Silvey said the governor's rhetoric on the cuts to the program for the blind were "inflammatory" and said the effects of eliminating the program have been "wildly exaggerated."
Silvey and Kelly added at least $6 million in another fund that provides services to the blind during the budget committee mark-up process. Some of those funds are contingent on the passage of a bill eliminating a sales tax exemption for newspapers.
Democrats also offered an amendment to allow the Department of Social Services to accept a $50 million grant to upgrade the state's computer system to determine Medicaid eligibility. Silvey said this amendment was an effort to "pave the way" for the implementation of the federal health care in Missouri by upgrading computers to accommodate a health insurance exchange.
"This would enact Obamacare through the back door and call it a computer upgrade," Silvey said.
Kelly supported the amendment and said this was the "greatest tragedy we are not doing this year." He said there is nothing in the grant's regulation that requires the state to set up a health exchange, which allows people to compare prices of different insurance providers. The exchange is mandated in the federal health care law's Affordable Care Act.
The amendment to accept the grant upgrading the computer system failed by a vote of 92 to 58, along mostly party lines.
The $24 billion total for Missouri's fiscal year 2013 budget is $1 billion more than the fiscal 2012 budget. This number, however, does not reflect an increase in state spending. Silvey and the House Budget Committee removed most of the "estimated" appropriations from the budget and inserted more accurate numbers of government spending.
"It increases transparency for what we were already spending," Silvey said.
In previous years the estimated figures, usually used for federal grant money, only accounted for $1 in the state's total budget. Now, those numbers reflect the actual amount of money the state department spends, leading to the appearance of a $1 billion total increase.
The budget needs one more vote in the House before it is considered by the Senate. The budget must be sent to the governor's desk by May 11.