By Eli Yokley
Globe Staff Writer
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. —
After being sworn in Wednesday for the first session of the 97th General Assembly, six lawmakers from Southwest Missouri were among those who heard House Speaker Tim Jones vow to fight for education funding over Medicaid expansion.
Jones delivered an extensive speech — nearly 45 minutes — touting his agenda for the upcoming session. Jones said that after meetings with lawmakers and completing a 20-city statewide tour, he has put together a legislative agenda that he claims would make Missouri the “strongest state in the nation” in terms of economic, energy and education policy.
Jones tied his support of education to his opposition to expanding the state’s Medicaid rolls, contending that such increased spending could damage funding for education in the long term.
“One of the top concerns we must address this session is protecting education funding from continued encroachment by the governor’s welfare expansion funding demands,” he said.
Gov. Jay Nixon, and House and Senate Democrats have proposed expanding eligibility for Medicaid in the state using funding provided through the 2010 federal health care law. They point to a study by the Missouri Hospital Association that asserts nearly 24,000 jobs could be created if the state were to accept the federal funding for expansion.
“It is not only the smart play economically, but the right thing to do for the people of this state,” Rep. Jacob Hummel, D-St. Louis, the House minority floor leader, said in a speech before Jones talked.
The issue of Medicaid will likely be an extensive battle as lawmakers deliberate about the fiscal 2014 budget. That discussion will begin when Nixon takes the stage on Jan. 28 in the House chamber to deliver his State of the State address to a joint session of the General Assembly.
While the two parties are seriously divided on the issue of health care expansion and many labor policy proposals, they may have some common ground on a new proposal to fund infrastructure improvements. Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, is working on legislation that would allow the state to use $1 billion in bond insurance to pay for road projects and improvements at the state’s universities. Jones said Wednesday that he would proudly consider the proposals, which are similar to bonding proposals used by Republican governors in the past.
Rep. Tom Flanigan, R-Carthage, was one of the first lawmakers on his feet to cheer the proposal. He said in an interview that just like when school districts pass bonding proposals, the state would pay the bonds off over time and would come out on the back end with improvements.
“That is a proposal that Ron Richard and I worked on for a long time. It is going to be necessary for the state,” he said. “If we have an opportunity to take advantage of interest rates that are very low and spread that out over 30 years, that makes a lot of sense to absolutely pursue that.” Richard is a state senator from Joplin.
In addition to Flanigan, those sworn in for new terms included Reps. Charlie Davis, R-Webb City; Mike Kelley, R-Lamar; Bill Lant, R-rural Newton County; Bill Reiboldt, R-Neosho; and Bill White, R-Joplin.
Families and friends of the members filled the upper galleries of the House chamber to watch members be sworn in. Lant was sworn in for his second term. In an interview outside the House chamber, he said this time was significantly less stressful than the time before.
“It is a lot of excitement for those people in their first term,” he said. “I was really able to enjoy it today. It was a fun day, and I enjoyed every minute of it.”
IN JEFFERSON CITY, the next few days will be quiet on the legislative front as lawmakers prepare for the inaugural celebration for Gov. Jay Nixon and other constitutional officers. On the front steps of the Capitol building, the stage is set for Monday’s inaugural ceremony. Rep. Bill Lant said he will be one of the members of a joint committee that will join Nixon on stage during Monday’s festivities.