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Budget for Missouri’s troubled social service agency called ‘pivotal victory’

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Missouri State Capitol Building

The Missouri State Capitol is in the midst of a transition of statewide officeholders. (Robert Cohen, rcohen@post-dispatch.com)

JEFFERSON CITY — In a signal that the state budget may be on track to be signed by Gov. Mike Parson, one of his top cabinet members, who previously served as the governor’s deputy chief of staff, is praising the $49 billion spending package.

Robert Knodell, director of the Missouri Department of Social Services, sent a lengthy letter Friday to the nearly 6,000 employees in his agency calling the budget approved by the House and Senate a “pivotal victory.”

“This budget marks a substantial turning point in the trajectory of our department and it’s a credit to all of you that we have achieved this milestone,” Knodell wrote. “We are a nearly 6,000 person team that has experienced our fair share of difficulties. We are poised to emerge from the challenges of COVID-19 stronger than ever.”

The overall spending plan is under review by the governor, who typically signs the budget bills in June before the start of the fiscal year on July 1.

Fueled by unexpected growth in tax revenues and a major influx in federal pandemic relief funding, the blueprint adds more money for most state programs, including education, higher education and road building.

“If you are a loser in this budget, you did it wrong,” Senate Majority Floor Leader Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, told reporters on Friday.

“I think everybody got a little bit of what they wanted, maybe not everything,” said Senate Minority Leader John Rizzo, D-Independence.

The social services budget weighs in as the largest in state government at $14.3 billion.

The agency oversees a wide swath of the state’s social service programs, ranging from health insurance for low-income Missourians, food stamps and nursing home funding. It also operates programs for troubled youth and foster children.

But it has been plagued with problems, including aging computer systems, a shortfall of workers due to low pay and a revolving door of administrators.

Under the plan now awaiting action by Parson, the Legislature provided $2.5 billion to continue the voter-approved expansion of Medicaid to low-income adults through the MO HealthNet program.

Lawmakers also approved $925 million to boost payments to providers serving nursing home patients, people with developmental disabilities and home-care programs. And it sets aside money to upgrade a number of computer programs designed to ease waiting lists, enrollment backlogs and processing times.

In the department’s children’s division, which has been understaffed in recent years, the budget includes money to replace an aging computer system with “a new comprehensive child welfare information system that is modern, mobile, and user-friendly.”

In addition, the budget also provides funds to place satellite phones throughout various field offices to be available for use by employees in locations of limited mobile communication access to ensure safe transit and work with children during home visits.

“Securing these funds is a major victory. It is now up to each of our 6,000 team members to use this new found trust bestowed on us to improve the lives of families, children and youth we all serve,” Knodell said.

The legislation is House Bill 3011.

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