JEFFERSON CITY — With Missouri's budget prospects improving, dozens of advocates for social services and education crowded a Senate committee room Tuesday asking for more money for things such as Medicaid and college scholarships.
Medicaid expansion was the key topic during the Senate Appropriations Committee's first public hearing on Missouri's next operating budget, which begins July 1.
Social welfare advocates told the committee that expanding Medicaid under President Barack Obama's health care law would allow at least 255,000 low-income Missouri residents to receive health care coverage and help hospitals stay open.
The federal health care law reduces payments to hospitals for treating the uninsured on the assumption that more people will have coverage either through private insurance or Medicaid. But because of last year's Supreme Court ruling, each state must decide whether to embrace the Medicaid expansion.
Gov. Jay Nixon has said he will include the Medicaid expansion as part of his budget proposal to be outlined Jan. 28.
Former Democratic St. Louis Rep. Jeanette Mott Oxford told the panel that if Medicaid is not expanded, hospitals might be forced to close.
"Hospitals need this done ... they are in a very vulnerable situation," said Oxford, who now serves as the executive director of the Missouri Association for Social Welfare.
But the committee's vice-chairman, who presided during the Medicaid discussion, remained unconvinced after the hearing, saying lawmakers still don't have an accurate long-term cost estimate.
"It is probably something the state should not do at this point," said Sen. Scott Rupp, R-Wentzville.
The committee also heard public testimony on education, mental health, disability and other programs for low-income Missouri residents.
A pair of recovering alcoholics asked for increased funding to substance abuse treatment programs. Enda Barrett, of Cape Girardeau, and Linda Smith, of Macon, both said they would not have been able to hold down jobs and recover if not for state-sponsored treatment programs.
College students asked the committee for larger financial aid packages, including increased support for Access Missouri scholarships, a financial-need-based program for students attending public or private colleges.
Misty Todd, a senior at Westminster College in Fulton, said her Access financial reward was reduced from $3,500 to $2,000 annually during her college career.
More than 30 people testified during Tuesday's hearing. There were no promises that any of them would get their requested funding. But "if you don't ask, you won't get," Rupp said.
House appropriation committees also began hearing presentations from state departments Tuesday. The Senate Appropriations Committee will meet Wednesday to hear more public testimony about transportation, public safety, and state funding for the arts.