April 17, 2014

Senate budget committee criticized for pulling money for child abuse investigators

Governor Jay Nixon (D) is lending his voice to those concerned about the removal from the budget of $4.6-million for the state Children’s Division by the Senate budget committee.

Advocates for children and prevention of abuse say the money would have supported efforts to retain investigators in the division and allow for more expedient response to reports of abuse. They say high turnover and low numbers among investigators as well as slow response has resulted in a backlog of abuse reports and some causes going uninvestigated.

The items eliminated included more than $2.2-million for the Children’s Division Career Ladder including the creation of two new levels of caseworkers, more than $1.5-million for a “mobility project,” involving the use of I-Pads and WiFi for investigators to be able to respond to and deal with reports more quickly and $828-thousand for student loan forgiveness for new investigators.

The Governor included those amounts in his budget proposal and House budget makers kept it in theirs, but this week the Senate budget committee removed it.

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kurt Schaefer (R-Columbia) says the career ladder increase would have gone above-and-beyond an overall 1-percent increase in pay for state employees that is included in the FY-15 budget proposal. 

Schaefer acknowledges the argument that the state needs to do more to retain child welfare investigators, but says, “This late in the process with that coming up when it did I think that would be difficult … pay increases for employees and additional things for employees that are presented to us as an incentive to give to those employees, those are intriguing ideas but I think we need a little more information on that.”

The Senate committee did not remove $347-thousand dollars for secondary trauma and child abuse training.  “Our concern is making sure we’re getting money on the ground for services,” says Schaefer. 

The removal of that money disappointed Emily Van Schenkhof, Deputy Director of Missouri Kids First. She says it would allow Missouri to do a better job of investigating reports of child abuse.

“These increases in Children’s Division are vitally important for the safety of Missouri’s children and for us to make positive steps forward in improving our response to investigating.”

Chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee for Health, Mental Health and Social Services, Sue Allen (R-Town and Country), says she will fight to restore the funding for the I-Pads and WiFi for investigators.

“Possibly, maybe there is a level of looking at either the loan forgiveness or the career ladder,” says Allen. “We probably can’t do it all, but we kind of prioritize and figure out which things we can do now, and then maybe we put the next things on the burner for next year.”

Told of Schaefer’s concerns with the budget items, Governor Nixon was asked what his message to Schaefer would be.

“Follow the House position and have a little discussion in your committee on stuff this important,” answers Nixon. “The House had interim committees about it. We all have. Everybody here is well aware of the challenges that are faced, the difficult situations that occur in the Children’s Division and are aware that we worked hard with a number of policy makers as well as folks in the legislature to come up with a solid set of recommendations.”

Once the Senate budget committee completes its work on the proposed budget, the full Senate will vote on the proposal and then conferees chose in the House and the Senate will meet to work out differences between the two chambers’ proposals. A budget plan must be sent to the Governor by 6 p.m. May 9.

Plan to save money on Medicaid expansion would mean reduced eligibility to children

Some state lawmakers are balking at the concept of saving the state money to expand Medicaid by eliminating coverage for some children.

Representative Jay Barnes (right) presents concepts for reform of Medicaid to the Interim Committee on Medicaid Transformation.

Representative Jay Barnes (right) presents concepts for reform of Medicaid to the Interim Committee on Medicaid Transformation.

Representative Jay Barnes (R-Jefferson City) has outlined his idea to the House Interim Committee on Medicaid Transformation, which he chairs, to increase Medicaid eligibility enough to draw federal dollars as Democrats have wanted to do. To do it, he proposes the elimination or reduction of coverage for some groups including some children in low- to middle-income families.

Barnes calls the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (S-CHIP), “more liberal than the Affordable Care Act,” and he says that is why the state can pare it back. It currently extends coverage to children in families with income that is up to three-times the federal poverty level.

Barnes notes that families making more than one-and-a-half times the federal poverty level pay a premium on S-CHIP coverage, and says it would cost less for those families to buy a federally subsidized health insurance program on an exchange.

Representative Sue Allen (R-Town and Country) says she would rather continue the coverage to families whose spending habits are based on having it.

“We take care of children now better than some able-bodied adults,” she says. “Children have no way control or ability to impact the way a parent or two parents utilize their family resources.”

Representative Keith Frederick (R-Rolla) expresses his concern that Barnes’ plan would free up money in the state budget at the expense of piling on to the nation’s debt.

Representatives Keith Frederick (left) and Jay Barnes.

Representatives Keith Frederick (left) and Jay Barnes.

“The savings to us is by virtue of offloading the expense to basically our future generations. That’s a philosophic difficulty for me. If we carry it out to its logical conclusion, then in every instance that a state or any entity can save money if they offload it to the exchanges, they save money in their own little world, but as a nation it sinks us.”

Representative Chris Kelly (D-Columbia) responded to Frederick, noting the origin of Medicaid, “We are unloading our cost from one aspect of a federal program to a different aspect of a federal program. Missouri didn’t invent our current Medicaid scheme. The feds did. Now the feds are saying, ‘You can do this differently and we’ll pick up more of the cost.”

Barnes defended the concept. He tells the committee, “I’m comfortable with saying the State of Missouri should not pay for health insurance for a family that makes 300-percent of the federal poverty level.”

Barnes says a bill could be ready by some time in January. His overall plan would also eliminate or reduce coverage in the areas of care for the blind and women’s health, and projects a savings by Fiscal Year 2021 of more than $42-million.

His committee will meet again November 19, and then with its Senate counterpart and the Governor November 26.

Chairman wants to look for more opportunities for government downsizing

The chairman of a committee that held hearings during the summer on downsizing state government has a list of things he wants it to dig more deeply into.

Representative Paul Curtman (photo courtesy; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Representative Paul Curtman (photo courtesy; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Representative Paul Curtman (R-Pacific) has given House Speaker Tim Jones (R-Eureka) a list of the things he wants the Committee on Downsizing State Government to spend more time investigating. Curtman says many of those could save the state money, such as implementing audits that compare state agencies to one another looking for opportunities to increase efficiency.

He says comparative audits have saved money in the State of Washington.

“Over the course of five years they realized about a billion dollars’ worth of savings to taxpayers. So, I think that on that particular issue that’s something that we can look at, we can see what other states have done.”

Comparative audits have been proposed in legislation in the past, most recently in the House by Representative Sue Allen (R-Town and Country).

Curtman says other areas that could be looked at are upgrades in information technology and management of the state’s motor vehicle fleet and facilities.

He expects the committee to hold more hearings once the legislature reconvenes in January.

Efficiency Committee questions state handling of child abuse cases

A House Committee on government efficiency is looking into how the Department of Social Services handles child abuse cases.

The House Interim Committee on Improving Government Responsiveness and Efficiency begins a two-day hearing at the Capitol.  (Photos courtesy: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

The House Interim Committee on Improving Government Responsiveness and Efficiency begins a two-day hearing at the Capitol. (Photos courtesy: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

The Interm Committee on Improving Government Responsiveness and Efficiency heard from Springfield law enforcement officer Tim Bruce, who says he has been trying for years to get the Division of Family Services to investigate claims three of his grandchildren are being sexually abused.

“It was not confirmed through an investigation and through a CAC interview that my oldest grandson was, in fact, sexually molested. All of this while DFS had continually told me that there was no concern, there were no issues, and the mother to this day still has those children in her care.”

Acting Department of Social Services Director Brian Kinkade says his agency’s top priority is child safety. He says it responds to 50-60 thousand abuse hotline calls a year.

“I would contend that in the vast majority of those cases, our division, the law enforcement, our doctors, our juvenile courts are taking the actions to keep our children safe.”

Several lawmakers expressed concern at Bruce’s story and Kinkade later met with him privately.

Chairwoman Sue Allen (R-Town and Country) also expressed interest in how the Department handles information on abuse cases.

The case of 4-year-old Lucas Webb of Holt gained attention when the Department refused to release information to the Kansas City Star for months. Allen asked Kinkade about the handling of that situation.

Kinkade tells her, “We are always concerned about taking an action that would jeopardize the prosecution of someone who has hurt or murdered a child, so our immediate action is always going to exercise extreme caution because if we were to do something to release information that would somehow jeopardize a situation like that, then you can’t pull that back, you can’t correct it, you can’t fix it.”

The Committee is also discussing eligibility for food stamps and temporary benefits for needy families. Its hearing continues today.

Lawmakers discuss status of bullying issue

Legislative attempts to set in state statute how school districts should define and deal with bullying have come and gone for another session without a bill being passed.

Representative Mike Colona (left) talks to Representative Sue Allen (right), whom he praises for her work on the bullying issue, saying it is a real issue for her and not politics.  (photo courtesy; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Representative Mike Colona (left) talks to Representative Sue Allen (right), whom he praises for her work on the bullying issue, saying it is a real issue for her and not politics. (photo courtesy; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

The key dividing issue remains whether to allow schools to enumerate, or to list groups of individuals that are protected from bullying based on things like sexual orientation, race or religion. Several versions of the bill would preserve current statute that disallows such lists of protected classes.

Democrats maintain that such lists are necessary to deal with issues that vary from district to district across the state. Republicans say enumeration would give preference to certain groups and argue that current statutes protects all students equally.

Representative Mike Colona (D-St. Louis City) says in the final days of the session there was agreement reached between the two sides on letting local school districts decide whether to enumerate. He says that would be a good compromise.

“Every school district’s unique … as to their geographic location and, in essence, their constituencies. The folks that go to school in the City of St. Louis is a different constituency than the folks that go to school in Ladue, than the folks that go to school in Springfield, than the folks that go to school in Liberty. The issues are different.”

Sponsor of bullying legislation Representative Sue Allen (R-Town and Country) says she suspects the only

reason some of her fellow House Republicans were willing to vote for a bill that would let local school districts choose whether to enumerate was because they expected enumeration to be rejected in the Senate.

“I think the fact that we passed it in the House may be a bit deceptive.”

Senator Ed Emery (R-Lamar) confirms there is still division in the Senate, saying he will block any bill that allows enumeration.

“The identification of special groups by local school districts is not allowed is the language that is currently in statute and I am in favor of leaving that language in statute.”

Senator Jolie Justus (D-Kansas City) on the other hand says she will block any bullying bill that does not allow enumeration. She says leaving that up to local control is the right approach.

“I think it makes no sense to pass a state law that says a specific school district can address a specific issue, and it’s not just a gay and lesbian issue. It’s the disability issue, it’s poverty. It’s all sorts of different things.”

Allen says in days after the session ended she was ready to give up on the issue, calling it a “lose-lose” situation. Now she says she’s contemplating a different approach in 2014.

“Maybe next year, just look at the definition of bullying and cyberbullying and make it short and sweet, and not make it as all-encompassing as what we had, but try to come up with a way that everybody is going to see what is really important here. In my opinion it’s a safer school environment for all kids.”

Allen says if she can pass a simpler bill in 2014, she might try for the broader legislation if she is back in the legislature in the 2015-16 term.