Missouri lawmakers agree on more money for hospitals, higher education

Rudi Keller
Missouri Independent

The state’s budget also provides funding for the public defender system and mistakenly paid unemployment benefits

Hospitals, higher education and people who owe the state money from mistakenly paid unemployment benefits were the winners Wednesday in state budget negotiations.

There’s also extra money to help defendants in limbo because they are on public defender waiting lists and federal COVID-19 relief funds from the American Rescue Plan to help homeowners and renters behind on payments due to lost income.

For most of eight hours, conference committee members decided the fate of small and large spending items among the $3.1 billion in differences between the House and Senate. The final figures weren’t immediately available, but the final total will be much closer to the Senate’s $35.1 billion budget than the $32 billion version approved in the House.

The biggest item requested by Gov. Mike Parson and left out of the budget is $1.9 billion, including $130 million in general revenue, for Medicaid expansion to provide coverage for 275,000 working-age adults. The voter-approved measure is supposed to take effect July 1 and supporters have vowed to sue the state if Parson refuses to provide benefits without a specific appropriation.

Floor votes on the final bills are expected Thursday, but both chambers are also scheduled to meet Friday. Lawmakers have until 6 p.m. Friday to pass budget bills.

Major items approved by conferees Wednesday include:

$50 million to offset revenue losses to hospitals from a new Outpatient Simplified Fee Schedule set to go into effect July 1.

$24.2 million for higher education institutions, including a 3.7 percent increase in aid to four-year universities, an extra $7 million for community colleges and $2 million in new support for the State Technical College of Missouri.

$48 million to cover the debts of thousands of Missourians who mistakenly were paid unemployment benefits during 2020 after losing work for COVID-19 related business shutdowns.

$142 million for mortgage help and $442 million for rental assistance to prevent foreclosures and evictions for people who have lost income during the pandemic.

Like most budget conference negotiations, most of the decisions were made by House Budget Committee Chairman Cody Smith, R-Carthage, and Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Dan Hegeman, R-Cosby.

Early in the day, some members became frustrated when Smith said he would not allow the 10-member committee to take roll call votes on individual budget items to change decisions he and Hegeman had already made. 

“This is a conference committee and the point of a conference committee is to give representation to a number of people, not  just two,” state Rep. Ingrid Burnett, D-Kansas City, said.

But throughout the day, both Smith and Hegeman showed they could be persuaded to change their minds. In the Department of Transportation budget, the issue was Amtrak and the twice-daily Missouri River Runner train between St. Louis and Kansas City.

The state has been behind on payments to the national passenger rail carrier since 2010, and Smith wanted to limit the service to one train each day to cut costs. Instead, after a lengthy discussion, he agreed to take out the limit and leave language that the state would not obligate itself for more than the $10.8 million in the budget.

“It is the management of this service that is most important here,” Smith said.

The higher education funding increase is designed to cover inflation over the past two years. When the pandemic hit in March 2020 and state revenues plummeted, Parson withheld $140 million in state support, money that was offset in part by federal aid in the CARES Act. 

The extra money for higher education included a $2 million appropriation for Missouri Southern State University because it has the lowest support, per pupil, among four-year universities.

That sparked a discussion of whether money is being fairly distributed. Each year, most extra funding for higher education institutions is divided by giving each the same percentage increase.

“I would love for anyone to establish a formula we could use to rectify this,” Smith said.

The budget votes Thursday are unlikely to be the last this year on spending items. With more than $2.8 billion in revenue support coming to Missouri from the American Rescue Plan, lawmakers expect to meet in special session, perhaps more than once, to spend it.