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With time ticking down, Missouri Senate to debate $50 billion state budget next week

Senate President Pro Tem Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, walks the floor during session on Thursday, Jan. 25, 2024, in Jefferson City. Senate Republican leadership has clashed with members of the Missouri Freedom Caucus holding up business.
Eric Lee
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Missouri Senate President Pro Tem Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, walks the floor during session last January in Jefferson City.

The Missouri Senate’s budget plan approved in a committee Wednesday has more money for workers who help people with developmental disabilities, more to help low-income families afford child care and more for counties to defray the cost of holding people convicted of felonies.

There are also big new road projects and a boost to higher education funding.

The committee did make some cuts to House-approved items, including slashing $2.5 million for schools to install artificial intelligence gun detection equipment and $10 million for medical research with psilocybin mushrooms to treat mental illness.

Over two days, the Senate Appropriations Committee dug through thousands of individual lines as it prepared a spending plan for floor debate. Totals were not immediately available but the additions mean the Senate plan will be closer to Gov. Mike Parson’s $52.7 billion proposal than the $50.8 billion spending plan the House approved.

The budget will be on the Senate floor next week. Final approval could prove difficult with the six-member Freedom Caucus promising extended debate by digging into every item added to the budget for the coming year.

Republicans on the committee also injected a new issue into the budget at the end of Wednesday’s hearing – a provision, targeting Kansas City, that punishes any city declaring itself a sanctuary for undocumented immigrants with the loss of all state funding.

Among the larger items added during the markup session are:

  • $171 million to increase pay to at least $17 an hour for people helping adults with developmental disabilities in their daily lives. There is also $9 million to pay a $2 differential for night work.
  • $80 million for reconstructing U.S. Highway 67 in Butler County. There is also $30 million for road improvements near a beef processing plant in Wright City and $48 million for improvements to U.S. Highway 65 between Buffalo and Warsaw.
  • $5 million to increase payments to counties for jail time served by inmates who are later convicted of felonies and sent to state prisons. With $5 million added by the House, it would increase the per-day rate to $27.31 from the current $22.58, an amount that has not been increased since fiscal 2017. State law in effect since 1997 allows up to $37.50 per day but it has never been funded.
  • Restored $25 million cut from child care subsidies for lower income families and set new rates based on the latest rate study. The House directed that a rate study produced for the 2021-22 fiscal year be used.
  • Restored cuts the House made to Medicaid budget lines that pared back the amount set aside for anticipated cost increases. 

The restored money in Medicaid lines, and in other places in the budget, is to make sure departments can function until lawmakers can pass a supplemental spending bill next year, said state Sen. Lincoln Hough, a Republican from Springfield and chair of the appropriations committee
“I don’t want any of those things running out of money while we’re not here,” he said.

The money for developmental disability services will help diminish a waiting list, said Val Huhn, director of the Department of Mental Health. A boost in pay last year helped recruiting and the waiting list stopped growing, she said.

“Our waitlist is kind of stagnant, but we’re not seeing an increase,” she said.

Hough said he was disappointed last year that the full boost wasn’t possible.

“It’s one of those things that takes a long time, and we ended up kind of with half of what I really wanted to do,” Hough said. “This was finishing off, more or less, a commitment from last year.”

Another change made in the budget that won’t add costs is to take one employee from each of the state’s prisons and assign them to a centrally directed investigations unit. Their job will be to improve interdiction of contraband coming into the prisons.

That has proven difficult and arrests of corrections officers in recent years for carrying drugs into prisons illustrates the issue. In one instance, a corrections officer brought drugs in soda cans and another brought rolls of paper soaked in synthetic cannabinoid.

Trevor Foley, director of the Department of Corrections, said contraband gets into prisons in a variety of ways and catching it will also require a variety of approaches.

“There’s prevention, there’s perimeter security, there’s searches, there’s body scanners, there’s pushing our perimeters back, there’s drone monitoring,” he said. “There’s staff reviews, there’s visitor reviews, there’s vendor and delivery screenings.”

A wrongful death lawsuit filed earlier this month over a prisoner suicide describes the ease at which items can move from cell to cell even in the administrative segregation unit. Prisoners run strings that can move items as heavy as bed sheets from cell to cell. Sometimes goods are moved between floors, the lawsuit says, based on video obtained from the department.

It is very difficult to catch those types of activities, Foley said.

“I would need to triple my staff to have eyes watching every camera, even splitting them up by floors,” he said.

As of Friday, there will be two weeks left for lawmakers to finish a budget before the constitutional deadline. The deadline has only been missed once, and legislative leaders expressed confidence they can meet it again, although it will be close.

“Time is of the essence,” House Budget Committee Chairman Cody Smith said Thursday. “We do have enough time but certainly we are on the countdown.”

Smith said he needs time to study the changes made by the Senate to determine which he can accept.

‘I will reserve judgment until I understand what’s in the legislation,” Smith said. “I don’t think I really have a clear understanding of that.”

This story was originally published by The Missouri Independent, part of the States Newsroom.

Rudi Keller covers the state budget, energy and state legislature as the Deputy Editor at The Missouri Independent.