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House Republicans file budget five weeks before deadline

March 31, 2005
By: Chris Blank
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - Holding true to promises Republicans had made since the fall, a preliminary draft of the state budget calls for cuts to state government while including no additional taxes.

The budget focuses the bulk of its cuts to social services and the Department of Mental Health and increases to K-12 education. It was filed several hours before a House committee voted to send a bill that would significantly reduce the size and cost of the state's Medicaid program,

The Medicaid bill passed to the House floor early Thursday morning would reduce eligibility to the state's largest welfare program while requiring co-payments for children's health insurance. House Speaker Rod Jetton, R-Marble Hill, said the budget had been delayed to allow language on the Medicaid bill to be finalized.

Rookie House Budget Chairman Brad Lager, R-Maryville, said the Budget Committee had conducted a complete analysis of the state government, which was not possible under former Gov. Bob Holden because of disputes between the Republican led legislature and the Democratic governor.

Lager said the unusually thorough analysis had required more time and allowed for cuts to social services that increase efficiency, while minimizing the effect on Missourians.

"If we're not careful about controlling spending, Missouri's most vulnerable and needing will be in immediate danger. Programs like Medicaid have exploded over the past several years and forced difficult decisions."

A finalized budget is due in five weeks, and House Democrats said the tight deadline hurts their ability to critically analyze budget decisions.

Lager dismissed criticisms over the delay as little more than "partisan attacks."

"Those who would criticize because the budget bills haven't been filed are just being partisan," he said. "Everyone in (the General Assembly) who is curious to see the budget bills just had to ask."

Rep. Frank Barnitz, D-Lake Spring, said the proposed cuts to social service programs would only defray costs, ultimately costing the state more in the future.

"We are having a very nearsighted effort going on here," he said. "They are not looking at what these cuts are going to do. The Republicans have not shown the leadership it takes to look into the future and see what these cuts are going to do."

Barnitz, the ranking Democrat on the Budget Committee, echoed arguments the Democrats have made since the Medicaid bill was introduced in early March said cutting Medicaid will force the poor into hospital emergency rooms on the taxpayer's dime.

While objecting to cuts by the Republicans, Democratic leaders have repeatedly declined to specify where they would accept reductions.

Gov. Matt Blunt said the cuts to social programs are necessary to fund increases to education. The budget includes and additional $59 million to K-12 education and flat appropriations to the state's universities, with the exception of an increase for Lincoln College. To protect education from cuts, Blunt called for $626 million in cuts to Medicaid, $239 million in cuts from state agencies and more than $20 million in cuts to the number of state employees.

Nikki Krawitiz, UM system vice president for administration and finance, said system officials, expecting flat appropriations, had already directed each of the four campuses to find places to cut costs.

"Obviously, increases are nice, but we are getting what we were told we'd be getting," she said. "Given the alternatives and the many state agencies that had very large cuts, the budget was to be expected."

Lager said his budget proposal includes many of Blunt's ideas but attributed this to similar philosophies rather than an active effort to consider the governor's budget.

The budget, however, does not include Blunt's controversial recommendation to end the First Steps program. Lager has said he does not support eliminating the program that gives financial support to the parents of disabled children from birth to age three.

House leaders said they were optimistic they could avoid the frequently contentous budget discussions of last session because the committees responsible for the budget in the House and Senate had been working closely with the executive branch.

The budget year begins July 1.