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.