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UPDATE: Missouri Senate seeks to restore benefits for the blind

Thursday, April 5, 2012 | 6:20 p.m. CDT

JEFFERSON CITY — A Missouri Senate committee searching for ways to restore health care benefits to the blind is targeting cuts at other social services, including the foster care system and state staff who screen applicants for Medicaid and food stamps.

The Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday completed its firstpass-through of a proposed $24 billion budget for next fiscal year without deciding whether to fund a $30 million blind benefits program that was eliminated in the House version of the budget. But it appears likely that committee members will reverse all or part of the House's cut when they resume work next week.

Asked if he would restore the blind aid program, Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, said Thursday: "We're still working on it."

Schaefer is seeking to free up money by cutting other parts of the budget and has taken particular aim at the Department of Social Services, which accounts for about one-third of the state's budget.

The Senate committee decided to eliminate an $11.8 million pool of money used by the department's Children's Division to pay for foster care in homes or institutions, or to provide subsidies to families who adopt children in state custody. The division already has separate line items in the budget for the various means of caring for foster children. The additional pool of money gives administrators flexibility in spending decisions, because it's not always clear what kind of care will best suit children, said Linda Luebbering, the budget director for Gov. Jay Nixon.

But Schaefer said the pool of money is a vestige of a couple of decades ago, when the state was flush with cash. He called it "a slush fund with very few strings" and said bureaucrats should instead do a better job of projecting how much they will need for each section of the budget.

If it turns out the division needs the money, lawmakers can provide it during a supplemental budget in early 2013, Schaefer said.

Luebbering said the flexible fund is not really extra money but is instead needed to meet the projected caseload. She said the department will almost certainly have to seek additional funding for children's services to make it through the 2013 fiscal year, which runs from July 1 through June 30, 2013.

The Senate committee also has decided to eliminate training money for staff in the Department of Social Services, and approved a $2 million cut to an $85 million budget item for employees who handle eligibility determinations for Medicaid, food stamps and welfare payments. The cut would eliminate 40 of the 2,377 full-time positions the House had budgeted for those services.

Schaefer said that was a small cut compared with reductions made in recent years to public colleges and universities.

Although the committee hasn't outlined its own plan for providing health care to the blind, it has made clear that it will not follow the House's proposal.

After eliminating the blind health care program, the House added $6 million to the budget for a new, slimmed-down program that would have been funded partly by taxing the ink and other supplies used to produce newspapers. The Senate panel struck that proposal from the budget. Schaefer said there was no chance of a newspaper tax passing the legislature.


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