JEFFERSON CITY • Missouri lawmakers want Gov. Jay Nixon to decide which is more important to the state budget: support for low-income seniors or programs for children with developmental disabilities.
The Legislature adopted a nearly $25 billion budget Thursday that relies on more than $40 million from the repeal of a tax credit program for elderly and disabled renters to fund special education programs, community health clinics for the poor and health care coverage for blind Missourians.
Legislative leaders admitted the budget maneuvering was meant to keep Nixon from vetoing the tax credit repeal, following threats from his administration.
But several lawmakers still raised concerns over the plan as each chamber worked to adopt the budget ahead of today’s constitutional deadline.
“I don’t like it when it comes to this dilemma of who do we hate more, seniors or kids, or seniors or blind people?” said Rep. Jeff Rorda, D-Barnhart.
Sen. Ryan Silvey, R-Kansas City, who serves on the Senate Appropriations Committee, said lawmakers were blindsided by the proposal Thursday. The arrangement to put money from the tax credit repeal toward those programs was reached in negotiations between the House and Senate earlier this week.
“I’m no stranger to legislative leveraging,” said Silvey, who previously chaired the House Budget Committee. “However, I’m not a fan of using disabled children as political leverage.”
Despite those concerns, the budget bills passed through both chambers of the Republican-controlled Legislature.
The spending plan, which will go into effect July 1, also includes a $65 million increase to the state’s basic K-12 education funding model, a $25 million increase for colleges and universities and increased reimbursement rates for Medicaid providers.
But it and separate tax credit repeal legislation approved shortly after the budget still need Nixon’s signature.
In a strongly worded written statement Thursday, the governor called the decision to fund special education and health programs for the needy by eliminating a tax credit for low-income renters “cynical” and “irresponsible.”
“Over the past four years, through some very challenging budgets, we have successfully worked together to keep our fiscal discipline, create jobs and protect our most vulnerable citizens,” he said. “That is why it is so troubling that budget negotiators in the House and Senate are now engaging in a cynical attempt to pit children with developmental disabilities who are enrolled in the First Steps program against low-income seniors who benefit from the renters tax credit.”
Nixon, a Democrat, included $56 million from the elimination of the renters tax credit program, commonly called the “circuit breaker” tax credit, in his own budget proposal released in January, but he has recently signaled that he does not support the repeal unless it is part of a broader tax credit overhaul. The money from the repeal is supposed to go to a newly created “Senior Services Protection Fund.”
House Budget Committee Chairman Rick Stream, R-Kirkwood, and Silvey both said Nixon’s budget director, Linda Leubbering, has told them privately that the governor plans to veto the repeal bill.
If he does, the funding in the Legislature’s budget for the blind, developmentally disabled and low-income health programs will be lost.
Stream said budget writers felt they only had two options when Nixon reversed that position halfway through the budget process — “find $56 million to cut out of the budget or fund the Senior Services Protection Fund and use it to fund items that we thought the governor would not veto.”
“It’s the governor who has created this problem,” said House Majority Floor Leader John Diehl, R-Town and Country.
Democrats, as well as advocates for the elderly and people with disabilities, have opposed the repeal of the renters tax credit, but the House approved the legislation and sent it to the governor shortly after passing the budget. An estimated 105,000 low-income Missourians are expected to be affected by the repeal.
“The circuit breaker is often the only thing that enables seniors and people with disabilities to weather a financial crisis and maintain their independence,” said Sarah Durbin, director of policy for St. Louis-based Paraquad Inc.
But Diehl defended the repeal of the credit, calling it a “government program that we would not have enacted or implemented.”
Rep. Kevin Engler, R-Farmington, called the renter credit a “direct government welfare program.”
“This program, like so many government programs, was created and it’s morphed into something else,” he said.
In the budget heading to Nixon, the Senior Services Protection Fund will contribute $20.2 million to First Steps, a program that provides support to families that have young children with disabilities; $10.1 million to early childhood special education; $7.2 million to health care for the blind; and $3.2 million for community health centers that serve thousands of uninsured Missourians across the state.
Silvey, who held the Senate in a filibuster for two hours over the threat to First Steps, said he was told leaders may be open to a plan to find other funding for the Senior Services Protection Fund if Nixon vetoes it.
He said there are several bills available that could be amended to allow the state treasurer to deposit funding from the state’s general revenue reserves. State revenue collections have outpaced exceptions this year, and budget leaders say they expect a surplus of more than $500 million.
However, in taking up legislation to end the circuit breaker tax credit program, House leaders made no mention of a compromise on funding the programs tied to it in the budget.
“I’m not aware of any type of arrangement like that whatsoever,” Stream told reporters.