JEFFERSON CITY - The House and Senate entered the final days to finalize the state budget Monday having resolved most of their differences, but a dispute on health care for veterans has put another health program in jeopardy.
Among the top issues ironed out between the House and Senate is a two percent pay raise for state employees making less than $70,000 a year. The raise would affect 54,000 state employees, which is 97 percent of the state workforce.
The pay raise has not been without controversy as the Senate narrowly defeated an effort to eliminate the increase when they passed the budget two weeks ago.
Despite coming to an agreement on the pay plan and on other areas of the budget, the fate of a special health care program for the blind has become attached to a decision funding the state's veterans' nursing homes.
The House has put forward a plan to raise $31 million for the veterans' homes by switching casino revenue away from early childhood programs. Early childhood would then be funded with money from a national settlement against tobacco companies. The Senate, however, has yet to pass the House plan, an action that has stalled negotiations and endangered the program for the blind according to House Budget Chairman Ryan Silvey, R-Kansas City.
The Senate spent 11 hours debating the House's veterans' bill, but a filibuster by Sen. Jason Crowell, R-Cape Girardeau, caused them to adjourn without a vote.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Dempsey, R-St. Charles, said the measure is "critical to the budget."
During debate, Crowell accused Dempsey of not following through on a promise to not include a $2 million earmark for Southeast Missouri State University. Crowell has vowed to block votes on the budget and every other piece of legislation unless the SEMO earmark issue is resolved.
"It does not matter what the bill is at this point," Crowell said, promising to hold up all pending legislation brought before the Senate floor.
Dempsey said he did not think these issues "rise to the level of not passing a $24 billion budget on time."
The health care program for the blind costs $28 million and pays the medical bills of 2,800 blind people who make too much money to qualify for Medicaid. The House eliminated the program in their version of the budget, but the Senate restored its funding.
Silvey said he would be open a plan put forward by Senate Appropriations Chairman Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, that would charge the program's participants a $700 premium for insurance coverage. Schaefer's plan was rejected on the Senate floor when an amendment was adopted to restore funding for the program at its current level.
The budget must be sent to Gov. Jay Nixon's desk by May 11 at 6 p.m.
House passes measure defunding Sue Shear Institute
Missouri's representatives passed a measure Monday that would defund the Sue Shear Institute and bar any public institution from taking part in political activity.
The Institute is based out of the University of Missouri-St. Louis and is named after a former St. Louis representative who was originally elected to the state House in 1972 and was a major proponent of ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment in Missouri.
The measure was put forth by St. Louis County Republican Rep. Sue Allen and was attached to a bill that had the original intention of modifying the duties of the Coordinating Board of Higher Education to include creating a listing of courses that could be transferred between all public universities.
The House approved the measure with a mostly party-line vote of 93-59 after contentious debate between mostly Democratic and Republican women over the importance of the Institute. While Democrats argued that the Institute is a vital organization for women interested in joining the world of politics, Republicans said the organization is not necessary to promote leadership.
"It's a put down to say we as women need more," Allen said. "I don't need special treats or advantages."
Rep. Tishaura Jones, D-St. Louis City, said the amendment would eliminate opportunities for women and force them to stay at home.
"Why not just have women stay home, barefoot and pregnant, and stay in the kitchen?" Jones said. "Because that's exactly what this amendment does."
The House's passage of the provision came during a Republican-led filibuster in the Senate that was partially over the same issues. Sen. Jane Cunningham, R-St. Louis County, has pushed the issue as leverage against passing a veterans' home funding bill. began the filibuster earlier in the afternoon after a similar amendment to the House measure was not added to a bill that would determine funding for veterans' homes. However, the House has demanded the Senate pass the veterans' funding bill in order for budget negotiations to continue.
The House passed the overall bill, as amended, with a vote of 95-56. It now goes back to the Senate, which can either accept the changes or go to conference with the House.
Missouri voters in the St. Louis area might be asked to decide whether to raise the local sales tax to help fund improvements of the Gateway Arch grounds.
The Missouri House of Representatives gave final passage to the bill that would create the ballot issue and sent it to the governor's desk on Monday.
The bill would authorize a local election on a 3/16 percent sales tax. Part of the money would go to the Gateway Arch grounds and the other part to local parks.
Proponents said the sales tax would fund $120 million in bonds to put toward the $553 million plan to improve the grounds around the Arch.