The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

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March 16, 2013

Lawmakers’ attention likely to turn to budget after break

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Lawmakers left Jefferson City on Thursday for their annual spring break week having sent two bills to Gov. Jay Nixon. When they return, however, the stacks of bills on their desks will continue to rise.

In the final week of the first half of the session, legislation that would renew a series of so-called benevolent tax credits cleared both chambers of the General Assembly. The bill, sponsored by state Sen. Bob Dixon, R-Springfield, would restore expired tax credits aimed at aiding food pantries, pregnancy crisis centers and the families of slain law enforcement officers.

Legislation was also sent to the governor that would provide up to $3 million a year to help cities and local organizations lure sporting events to the state. The program would be administered through tax credits of up to $5 per ticket based on the number of tickets sold.

“Promises made and promises kept,” boasted House Speaker Tim Jones to reporters on Thursday. “We’re taking on tough challenges and moving forward.”

Jones, R-Eureka, said the House was proud of passing legislation that would change the Missouri Human Rights Act regarding discrimination claims in the workplace, making it harder for employees to sue. Republicans say the proposal is in line with federal law, but Nixon nonetheless vetoed the bill last year.

When lawmakers return to Jefferson City later this month, the bulk of their attention will move to passing the state’s $24 billion operating budget. Gov. Jay Nixon has toured the state over the past five months touting his plan to accept more than $1 billion in federal funds to expand the state’s Medicaid rolls to some 300,000 Missourians, but the funding was not included in the budget passed by House Budget Committee last week.  

“The Medicaid system is already broken. Medicaid is a mess,” Jones said. Therefore, he said, such a wide expansion would be “malpractice on the taxpayers.”

Republicans are instead working on their own Medicaid plan that they say is an effort to “transform” the program, not necessarily expand it. Jones tasked Rep. Jay Barnes, R-Jefferson City, with working out the issue. His proposal would allow individuals making 100 percent of the poverty level to use the program, clashing with the federal requirement of 138 percent.

On Thursday, the Senate Republican leadership, including Majority Floor Leader Ron Richard, R-Joplin, penned a letter to Nixon calling on him to propose a “common-sense, Missouri solution” to the problem.

“The state already spends nearly half of all state general revenue on the Medicaid program,” the letter signed by Richard, Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey, and five others read. “An expansion of such a large program with a partner as unreliable as the federal government would likely mean future tax increases or serious cuts to vital priorities, like K-12 education.”

Nixon said in a statement Friday that he was encouraged by lawmakers reaching out to him and pledged to continue to pursue the nearly $5.6 billion in federal funds the state would receive from the program.

“I look forward to continuing to work with the General Assembly to make our health system as efficient and effective as possible by bringing the tax dollars Missourians send to Washington back to work here in Missouri,” he said.

The House Budget Committee did move language forward that would provide tuition assistance to some 1,400 members of the Missouri National Guard. Their legislation was in response to the federal government’s decision to move forward on more than $1 trillion in automatic spending cuts over the next decade. Last year, the federal government provided nearly $3.7 million in tuition assistance, but those dollars were cut by the sequester.

House Veterans Committee Chairman Charlie Davis, R-Joplin, joined House Budget Committee Chairman Rick Stream, R-St. Louis, to announce an initial appropriation of $1.5 million in state funds to offset the loss of federal dollars.

“The federal government decided that they were not going to live up to their commitment to our soldiers,” Davis said at a news conference on Thursday. “Today, as our federal government turns their backs on our service members, we want our soldiers to know the Missouri Legislature stands behind them 100 percent.”

Stream’s legislation will be heard in the House when they return from break, before heading to the state Senate.

Spring break

Legislative spring break began on Friday. Lawmakers are schedule to return to Jefferson City on Monday, March 28.

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