State lawmakers serving the Monett area discussed the unusual legislative session recently concluded in Jefferson City before a forum hosted by the Barry-Lawrence Advocates Standing Together (BLAST) at Happy House restaurant. The injection of federal money----what 68th District State Representative David Sater referred to as "Obama bucks"----altered the debate and the outcome of the session.
State Senator Jack Goodman said lawmakers faced having "not enough money" due to the weakened economy, and "too much money" due to the federal response, at the same time. Missouri had an $800 million surplus going into the legislative session, better than many states, Goodman said. The additional of $4.4 billion in federal money proved irresistible to legislators.
The state has 24 months to spend the federal money, Goodman said. In the frenzy to use it, lawmakers committed three-quarters of it, all but $900 million, in the first year. Governor Jay Nixon took $250 million to repay taxpayers earlier than would have been possible otherwise.
Goodman said he was "highly disappointed" in two bills, especially Senate Bill 22 committed $50 million to private companies to create jobs. The bill represented an unprecedented shift of public funds to two handpicked private firms. Goodman doubted the jobs could be created, and said the firms had the technology, they would have produced the jobs without the federal funds. If the jobs are created, he doubted they would stay in Missouri after the federal money runs out.
On the positive side, Goodman said lawmakers finished reforming legislation behind the public defender system, which has taken several years. Overall Goodman thought there had been a good legislative session.
"If we could work more slowly, we would have more opportunity to think through the bills and craft the best solutions. In the Senate, we had good conversations to look at the undeniable problems we have today," Goodman said.
To spend or not to spend
Don Ruzicka, state representative from Mt. Vernon, reported lawmakers in the House introduced 1,200 bills plus 600 in the Senate, on the way to passing a $23.1 billion budget. In such a mass of bills, Ruzicka said it is important to have people highly educated in specific areas to sort out proposals, particularly when term limits removed acquired expertise so frequently.
Proposals to limit spending at times did not work. Governor Jay Nixon's proposal to cut spending on the University of Missouri Extension Service was turned back. An effort to reduce spending for meals-on-wheels resulted in a $500,000 increase. Ruzicka recalled receiving signed paper plates from senior citizen centers opposing the cuts.
Health care spending increased, Ruzicka said. There was a $46 million increase for nursing homes and a $2.5 million increase for dental care. Soil and plant conservation got $5.5 million more. Still, Ruzicka said, the state budget ended up surprisingly balanced. The money ended up split in thirds between social services, education, and the rest.
David Sater, state representative from Cassville, said the "Obama bucks" came in two packages. The federal stimulus funds went to shovel-ready infrastructure projects, like adding passing lanes to Highway 60 between Monett and Republic. Federal budget stabilization funds, on the other hand, were to help programs that were not fully funded or lacking in results.
How federal money was spent
Lawmakers took $400 million in stabilization funds and used them to "backfill" the state budget, Sater said. In several areas, lawmakers cut state spending and added federal dollars in their place. Sater questioned the wisdom of adding $2.1 million in federal money to the meals-on-wheels program for one year, leaving its future next year in doubt. He advocated against using stabilization funds for ongoing programs.
Sater disagreed with the approach his colleagues took in expanding Medicaid coverage for working adults. Sater said he felt Medicaid was designed to help those who were uninsurable or who found insurance rates too high. Expanding service to others would be hard politically to reduce again later, he said.
Sater's approach to health care, he explained, was to spend more on the front end, keeping people from getting sick or severely sick. He backed programs like Caring for Missourians to keep people healthy, before adding people to the rolls of programs paying for medicine and hospital care.
"There has never been a year when the state has spent less on Medicaid than it did the year before," Goodman said. Spending increases have slowed, and there may still be severe needs not fully addressed, but Goodman stressed cuts in Medicaid have not reduced the bottom line.
Advocates asked about spending for programs supporting their work, such as support payments that would encourage dentists to see more Medicaid patients. Sater said the legislature boosted reimbursement for dental care from 45 to 55 percent. He suspected the rate would have to get closer to 75 or 80 percent before more dentists would agree to take Medicaid patients. Sater's committee discussed changing codes for dental care but did not see enough funding to make a change.
Lawrence County victims advocate Pauline Gage asked for a legal way to break down barriers she had encountered trying to help abuse victims in schools, particularly due to bullying. She found school officials, rather than welcoming the expertise she has, preferred keeping her out of the situation. Gage cited a school resource officer who seemed unable to stop bullying going on in plain sight.
Goodman said proposed law changes had too often been pushed as ways to introduce new protected classes. He and the other legislators wanted to talk about ideas Gage might have for making the laws work better.
Asked about support for the "fair tax" that would drop the state income tax for a new broad-based sales tax, Sater and Ruzicka said they both supported it.
Goodman said some senators were surprised when the "fair tax" bill came to them from the House. He said discussing the same legislation in multiple sessions would have to help bring clarity and consensus to make such a major change.