JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri lawmakers sent the governor a $24 billion budget plan Thursday that shores up funding for veterans homes, gives raises to a reduced state workforce and spares public schools and universities from cuts — a result legislators praised as an accomplishment in what they bemoaned as another tight budget year.
Yet the budget also could be cast as a bit of a gamble.
To balance, it depends on a surge of money from the Missouri Lottery, which has yet to say how it will generate the cash. The budget leaves little money left over in case revenue projections miss their mark. And Gov. Jay Nixon's office already has indicated that he intends to ignore a section that seeks to impose eligibility limits and premiums on blind people receiving state-funded health care.
After the budget was nearly derailed during a tense start to the week in the Missouri Senate, the final version passed the state House and Senate with comparative ease. It now goes to Nixon, who can veto particular appropriations or withhold money from programs if he thinks the budgeted expenditures will exceed state revenues.
Nixon said in a written statement that he will review every line in the spending plan over the next several weeks to "ensure that we have a balanced budget." The budget takes effect July 1.
The election-year budget includes no tax increases — a fact touted by Republican legislative leaders and the Democratic governor alike. But it spends almost everything the state expects to take in, leaving a projected cushion of a little more than $6 million — far less than normal — for any midyear adjustments.
"With the situation we were given, I think we have a really good product," said House Budget Committee Chairman Ryan Silvey, R-Kansas City.
Democrats concurred, to a certain extent. Some suggested that lawmakers could have done more had they been willing to consider ways to increase taxes or boost collections of money Missouri already is owed.
"Unless we make some tough decisions about revenue in this state, our budget will be in even a bigger hole next year," said Rep. Sara Lampe, of Springfield, the ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee.
The budget includes a reduction of 956 full-time state employees compared to the current year. Those who remain — and earn less than $70,000 annually — will get a 2 percent pay raise. Lawmakers also included money for several specific new employees, including a "due diligence" officer to scrutinize state economic development deals and an additional animal health inspector to help enforce Missouri's new requirements on commercial dog breeders.
Basic aid for K-12 school districts would rise by about $5 million, a small amount on top of the $3 billion received this year but enough for politicians to tout a record level of funding when they return to the campaign trail. School aid still would fall in excess of $400 million short of what's called for by the funding formula.
Lawmakers rejected a recommendation by Nixon to cut funding for public colleges and universities. They instead held higher education essentially flat, with an increase of $3 million split among seven institutions to address perceptions of per-pupil funding disparities.
In one of the budget's more substantive changes, nursing homes for veterans now will receive most of the state's fees from casinos, providing a dedicated funding stream to replenish a veterans trust fund that had been projected to run dry in another year. Early childhood programs, which had received those casino fees, will instead be funded through Missouri's share of a nationwide tobacco settlement.
Lawmakers ultimately backed away from a House proposal that would have eliminated a health care program for more than 2,800 blind residents who earn too much to qualify for traditional Medicaid but have assets of less than $20,000. The budget provides nearly full funding to continue the program, but it also attempts to cap participation at three times the poverty level and require premiums for those earning more than 150 percent of the poverty level, or $16,755 annually for an individual.
Nixon's office said the limits are invalid, citing court precedent that lawmakers cannot change state statutes through budget bills.
The Missouri General Assembly's final version of the budget opted against proposed cuts to child care subsidies. But several other programs were cut.
The budget trims $2 million from education for state prisoners, a roughly 20 percent reduction. It eliminates 40 of the more than 2,300 state employees who handle eligibility determinations for Medicaid, food stamps and welfare payments — a savings of an additional $2 million. The budget also cuts the subsidies that counties receive for property tax assessments from $3.41 per parcel to the $3 minimum allowed under state law — a savings of $1.3 million for the state at the expense of local governments.