JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri's financially strapped veterans' nursing homes could gain a permanent earmark for tens of millions of dollars from casino fees under legislation passed Wednesday by the state House of Representatives in an attempt to shore up the proposed state budget.
The legislation, which still needs Senate approval, is supported by Gov. Jay Nixon. Lawmakers said it's necessary because the budget plan for the fiscal year starting July 1 assumes veterans' homes will gain a new source of dedicated funding to offset a decline in aid from state general revenues.
Missouri operates seven skilled-care nursing homes that have beds for 1,350 military veterans, with a waiting list of about 1,700 additional veterans.
The veterans' homes have been funded with a mixture of payments from their residents, federal funds, state general revenues and a small portion of the state fees collected from casinos. But the main trust fund for the Missouri Veterans Commission, which had $80 million in 1999, shrunk to its current $17 million after being repeatedly tapped because of declining general revenue appropriations.
That's why Missouri lawmakers have been looking for an ongoing, dedicated funding source for veterans' homes.
"This will solve our problem and allow us to be able to move forward in the budget conference process, develop a balanced budget and fully fund our veterans' homes," said House Budget Committee Chairman Ryan Silvey, R-Kansas City.
The veterans' trust fund already receives $6 million annually from casino fees. The legislation would add an estimated $31 million annually to the fund for veterans' homes, programs, cemeteries and the Veterans Commission administration.
It would do so by redirecting the portion of casino fees that are currently earmarked for early childhood programs.
The legislation would instead provide early childhood programs with $35 million annually from Missouri's share of a nationwide settlement with tobacco companies. That tobacco money has historically been used for general state operations.
House members approved the veterans' home funding measure by a 156-0 vote, attaching it as an amendment to a previously-passed Senate bill dealing with veterans' organizations that run retail shops. Because it was amended, the bill must return to the Senate for final approval.
Silvey said he hoped the measure would be sent to Nixon soon so that lawmakers could have certainty about veterans' home funding as they face a May 11 deadline to pass a final version of the state's $24 billion operating budget.
Several different veterans' home funding models have been considered this year. Nixon originally proposed to generate $50 million a year by raising the fee charged to casinos. But the fee hike did not find favor with lawmakers. Earlier this year, the House passed a plan that would have shifted lottery proceeds to early childhood programs while giving veterans' homes the casino fees. But some senators objected to tapping the lottery revenues.
The Veterans Commission isn't picky about the source of its revenues but would appreciate an earmarked funding stream, spokesman Daniel Bell said.
"We're supportive of basically any revenues that appropriately come to us through the legislative process," Bell said. With "dedicated funding, you generally know in advance what that amount is going to be every year."