Budget negotiators from the Missouri House and Senate could have a spending plan in place for the upcoming fiscal as early as Wednesday.
A conference committee hearing between the two chambers wrapped up in short order Monday night after the same process dragged out in fits and starts last year.
It appeared that much of the heavy lifting may have taken place in talks prior to the hearing over the legislature’s portion of the state’s $28.65 billion budget.
House Budget Chairman Scott Fitzpatrick, R-Shell Knob, noted that he and Senate Appropriations Chairman Dan Brown, R-Rolla, had made a previous agreement. “We both made sure we got our number one priority and that’s how that works sometimes,” said Fitzpatrick.
The top concern of Fitzpatrick was too fully fund the elementary and secondary education (K-12) foundation formula. The plateau was reached last year under its current arrangement that limits spending growth at five percent.
This year, the Senate had proposed to give the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education only $48 million of the nearly $99 million increase it asked for. But the upper chamber agreed to adopt the House plan in order to meet the department’s request.
$10 million was added to education transportation, which was a compromise as the House had allocated nothing while the Senate had proposed a $25 million increase to a service which has seen deep cuts in recent years.
With the Department of Higher Education, the budget planners in both chambers agreed to reinstate $68 million that Governor Greitens had cut in his proposal. The arrangement will keep funding for colleges and universities equal to its current level.
The Senate yielded to the House plan to fund four higher education cooperative agreements at 60% of what the department asked for. Among the programs are the University of Missouri Coop Medical School expansion at its Springfield clinic and the University of Missouri-Kansas City and Missouri Southern State University Coop Dental Program.
By far the biggest disagreement of the budget hearing took place over funding for historically black colleges. State Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis said she was prepared to filibuster on the Senate floor to protect $2 million in one-time funding recommended for Harris-Stowe State University.
“Here in the state of Missouri, they (state lawmakers) are doing a piss-poor job funding African-American universities,” said Nasheed.
She stated that Harris-Stowe currently receives 1% of Missouri’s Higher Education budget, which she described as “appalling.” During the Monday night hearing, the conference committee put $750,000 of the $2 million request back in the budget after Nasheed’s comments.
The major priority that Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Brown asked for was more provider reimbursement money for a Medicaid nursing home and in-home nursing care program. The $25.1 million appropriation agreed to more than triples the $7 million House proposal and will boost the patient per-day rate by $8.30.
Budget planners in both chambers called for a pay raise for state workers. They settled on a $700 yearly increase for employees who earn under $70,000 and a 1% hike for those making than that amount.
But the raises will be implemented January 1st, 2019 instead of at the beginning of the next fiscal year coming up July 1st.
Senate Appropriations Chairman Brown had asked to delay the pay hike in order to address a health care cost increases recently announced by Missouri Consolidated Health Care Plan.
At Senator Brown’s urging, $61.2 million has been allocated to keep premiums as close to level as possible for state workers. Brown said lawmakers were not able to squeeze out the additional $46 million needed to keep deductibles from rising by several hundred dollars, however.
In addition to the across the board pay raises, most Department of Corrections prison workers will see an even larger increase. After proposing to boost wages by $700, the Senate settled on a compromise of $350 with the House.
Corrections workers will see their pay increase by a total of $1,050 with both raises, although they’ll receive the $350 hike starting July 1st.
A dust-up between the Republican-led House Budget Committee and the Department of Health & Senior Services earlier in the session led the committee to penalize the agency.
Chairman Fitzpatrick and Vice Chairman Justin Alferman, R-Hermann, demanded to know how many people had tested positive for the deadly Bourbon virus when the department conducted examinations after the death of a state parks worker. The department repeatedly refused to release the information, citing restrictions from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The committee responded by moving the state health lab out of the Department of Health & Senior Services and into the Department of Public Safety. The panel also cut roughly $1 million of funding to the department’s executive office, which eliminated 10 positions.
In the committee conference hearing, the health lab was returned to Health & Senior Services while the number of positions done away with in its executive office was reduced from 10 to 8.
With negotiations complete between the House and Senate committees, the agreed upon budget will be sent to each full chamber for a vote. The legislature is bound by the Missouri Constitution to pass a balanced budget by Friday evening.
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