Missouri House and Senate leadership members have narrowed down options for finding money to fully fund the state’s Senior Services Protection Fund.
The program supplies in-home nursing and nursing home care for low-income seniors and disabled persons.
Lawmakers had agreed to do a sweep of funds out of agencies with excess money in order to come up with $35.4 million needed finance the program, which has previously been cut to offset a budget shortage.
The House passed a plan on the last day of the legislative session that had emerged from the Senate. But Governor Eric Greitens vetoed the fund sweep as unconstitutional, leaving the Senior Services Protection Fund in peril once again.
Greitens’ original budget in February called for a cut to the fund that would have left 20,000 people without the nursing care, but lawmakers were able to find money cover all but 8,000 senior and disabled persons during this year’s session.
The legislature failed to take action on the Governor’s veto move during its annual veto session in mid-September. At present, Republican House Budget Committee Chairman Scott Fitzpatrick says there are several options being considered to replenish the nursing care funds.
They all involve siphoning money from the Missouri Property Tax Credit Claim, commonly referred to as the Circuit Breaker Tax Credit, which the House had proposed earlier in this year’s session.
The early plan backed by Fitzpatrick would have eliminated the renter’s portion of the property tax credit which is given to lower income seniors. The revised options under consideration leave the provision for renters in place, but make other changes to access money.
One would lower the income level a recipient would have to meet to quality for the credit while another would raise the age for eligibility from 65 to 68. A third choice would lower the overall benefit which now allows a maximum of $750 for renters and $1,100 for owners who own and occupy their home.
Fitzpatrick says the House would likely pass any of the options, or a combination of them, if the Senate can come up with the necessary votes.
“Any combination of those solutions that would raise the needed amount of money of 35-and-a-half million-dollars to fund the Senior Services Protection Fund is probably something that the House can live with, as long as the Senate gets it over to us, and it actually raises enough money to take care of the problem,” said Fitzpatrick.
There’s been criticism from Democrats, who are outnumbered by a three-to-one margin in the General Assembly, and others that the funding choices being considered punish one group of seniors in order to take care of another one. An editorial in the Kansas City Star Sunday condemned the Republican plans, saying that “Hurting a different vulnerable population is a bad option”.
Fitzpatrick contends transferring money from the Property Tax Credit Claim is the only way to secure funding for the nursing care short of imposing new taxes on residents.
“It’s one of the few places in the tax credit space where you can go to and get savings in the first year of the reform. Most of the other credits require several years of phasing in, in order for the savings to generate.”
The third-term Representative from southern Missouri’s Shell Knob has issues with how the Property Tax Credit Claim was initially crafted. For one, he doesn’t like the fact that property tax credits are given to renters.
“I understand that when people are paying rent to a landlord, then the landlord pays property taxes,” Fitzpatrick said. “But to me, if we’re going to have that program, we should prioritize it based on people who are actually writing a check for property taxes.”
Fitzpatrick also says the tax credit itself was implemented when tax collections far exceeded expenses.
“They really came up with this program back when they were trying to figure how to get rid of money to keep from having to trigger Hancock refunds I believe. It’s just a different time now. We don’t have an excess of cash as a state government. And we can’t afford to spend money on entitlement programs that were, kind of, just made because they needed to get rid of money.”
A statement released by Fitzpatrick and Republican House Speaker Todd Richardson of Poplar Bluff noted that very few people are losing services from the Senior Services Protection Fund cuts.
The statement referred to calculations from the Department of Health and Senior Services which reveal that only 30 of the 1008 participants who have been evaluated under the new level of care standard have had their services altered. Richardson said he was surprised by the finding, but insisted that lawmakers still needed to address the funding shortage.
“Those numbers are pretty astonishing, but there is still going to be a funding problem moving forward and we will need to address this either in a special session or early next session,” said Richardson. “I am happy that this group came up with several ways to save the money necessary to fund these services and we will move forward with them as soon as the legislature is back in session.”
Fitzpatrick says the lower chamber is flexible to a work schedule that suits the Senate and the governor. “The House would be ready and willing to work with the Senate in a special session, or if not, then when we get back into regular session to pass a reform to the program to try to dedicate that revenue to long term services.”
Some Democrats have said a better way to come up with funding for the nursing care would be to look at repealing a 2015 law which offers a tax break for out of state businesses. The law has cost Missouri $177 million in loss of tax collections, far exceeding the projected negative impact of $15.2 million.
House Democrat Deb Lavender of Kirkwood has made it a top priority to fully fund both the Senior Services Protection Fund and the Property Tax Credit Claim.