Priorities fall into place for new budget

BY KIT WAGAR, SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH LIGHT

“No man’s life, liberty, or property is safe,” Mark Twain once said, “while the legislature is in session.”

Readers who feel the same way can breathe easier this week: Missouri legislators are on their spring break after 10 weeks spent wrangling over property rights, gun rights, sex education, sex offenders and sex involving low-income women.

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Lawmakers have wrestled with major public policies such as the use of tax credits that pay tuition at private schools. They made progress toward greater disclosure of the gifts they receive from lobbyists. They have considered a wide range of social legislation to encourage women to remain in the home and promote prayer in public schools.

And they are also considering legislation to designate the crayfish — also known as the crawfish or crawdad — as the official state invertebrate.

Yes, issues have ranged from the ridiculous to the sublime. But the biggest accomplishment of the first half of the legislative session was the House’s passage of its version of the state budget.

Politicians talk a lot about moral values. But no document reflects a legislature’s moral choices like what gets included and what gets left out of the budget.

The version that the House approved reflects the governor’s priorities, such as higher funding for schools and colleges, bigger subsidies for ethanol production and a phase out of funding for the Bellefontaine Habilitation Center in St. Louis, a residential center for mentally retarded adults.

It reflects House Republicans’ priorities, such as a pay increase for state employees and the restoration of health care coverage for nearly a third of the disabled workers who were cut from the Medicaid program last year.

And the budget reflects no small amount of election-year pandering to voters, particularly those in rural areas. House Republicans voted to keep subsidies for plants to turn farm products into diesel fuel rather than boost the number of investigators to fight Medicaid fraud.

They voted to keep funding in place for a boll weevil eradication program in southeast Missouri – even though Missouri’s cotton producers currently have no boll weevil problem. Rep. Rachel Bringer, a Palmyra Democrat, wanted to move the boll weevil money into the Children’s Health Insurance Program so fewer low-income people would have to pay premiums for state health insurance on the children.

Perhaps the most controversial vote came when Republicans – and a handful of Democrats – voted to ban county health departments from using state money to dispense contraceptives to low-income women who use county clinics.

The proposal’s sponsor, Republican Rep. Susan Phillips, said contraceptive services were an inappropriate use of tax dollars.

“If doctors want to give contraception privately or personally, they can,” said Phillips, who represents a suburban part of Kansas City. “But we don’t need to pay for contraception with taxpayer funds.”

Several conservatives also said privately that they objected to county health departments handing out birth control because they thought it encourages promiscuity.

But several Democrats and a few Republicans from western Missouri said cutting contraceptives to poor women would lead to more unplanned pregnancies and therefore more abortions and more children living in poverty.

Rep. Rachel Storch, a St. Louis Democrat, pointed to a study that found that the teen birth rate in Missouri dropped 32 percent from 1991 to 2002. The drop was attributed to wider availability of contraceptives.

“This policy is particularly treacherous for women in rural areas because county health clinics are often the only place they can go to receive health care,” Storch said.

Republicans defended their budget by noting that it includes the largest Medicaid budget in state history, up $263 million from the current year’s spending.

Budget Chairman Allen Icet, a Wildwood Republican, said the huge increase in spending vindicated last year’s dramatic cuts in Medicaid. Those cuts eliminated services for more than 90,000 people, created additional costs for nearly 16,000 more and reduced services for about 350,000 others.

If the old standards were still in place, Medicaid spending would have eaten up more than the entire projected increase in state revenue, Icet said.

The House included $12.75 million to restore about 9 percent of the state money that was cut from Medicaid last year. And House members also found $36.15 million to boost the fees that Medicaid pays to nursing homes, doctors, health clinics, air ambulances, in-home care providers and employees who work with the developmentally disabled.

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The resolution that touted “a Christian God” whose teachings formed “the founding principles of our nation” is still alive in the Missouri legislature.

The resolution, which carries no force of law, was moved to the House’s informal calendar. That means it can be brought up at any time. However, it is often the final resting place for bills that House leadership does not want to debate.

The resolution also called on elected officials to “protect the majority’s right to express their religious beliefs.”

The resolution drew criticism from Jewish groups and many Christian groups, who called it divisive and dangerously close to government endorsement of religion.

The sponsor, Republican Rep. David Sater of Cassville, said he hoped to bring up the resolution after lawmakers return from their spring break. He said he planned to amend the resolution to take out the references to a religious majority.

Kit Wagar is the statehouse correspondent for the Kansas City Star. He can be reached at 816-234-4440 or by sending e-mail to [email protected]