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Mo. budget creates choice between seniors, kids

By DAVID A. LIEB

Associated Press

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — Missouri lawmakers have prepared a budget that could force Gov. Jay Nixon to choose between funding for developmentally disabled children and low-income seniors.

The politically difficult decision is embedded in a $24.8 billion operating budget that was being considered by lawmakers on Thursday, a day ahead of a constitutional deadline to send the governor a spending plan for the 2014 fiscal year. Republican budget leaders acknowledged they were putting the Democratic governor on the spot in an attempt to leverage him into accepting a budget plan that he first proposed but upon which he has since parsed his position.

Nixon did not take too kindly to the maneuvering. He issued a written statement Thursday calling it “a cynical attempt to pit children with developmental disabilities ... against low-income seniors.”

When Nixon outlined a budget plan in January, he assumed almost $57 million of savings from the proposed repeal of a tax break for more than 100,000 low-income seniors and disabled residents who live in rental housing. Nixon proposed to redirect that money to mental health care, nursing homes and home-based health and living services that could benefit the disabled and seniors.

But last month, Nixon said he would veto the tax break repeal for low-income renters if it wasn’t part of a “broad-based and balanced” overhaul of Missouri’s many tax credit programs that have put a financial strain on the budget. Last year, Missouri waived more than $600 million of revenues through tax credits, many of which targeting economic development.

The House was expected to give final approval to a bill repealing the tax break for seniors and disabled renters, but separate legislation that would revamp Missouri’s other tax credit programs faces a far less certain future.

Because of the uncertainty, legislative budget writers made a last-moment switch this week that would use money from the repealed tax break to help fund early childhood special education, the First Steps program that serves developmentally disabled preschoolers, health care for the blind and medical clinics that serve low-income residents. The intent was to pressure Nixon into signing the tax-break repeal for seniors and the disabled, even if the broader tax-credit overhaul fails.

“He’s going to have to make a decision when we present the bills to him. Does he want to help the kids with special needs or not?” said House Budget Committee Chairman Rick Stream, R-Kirkwood. He added: “I do think we’ve got a lot of leverage.”

But not all lawmakers were pleased with that leverage.

“I don’t like it when it becomes this dilemma of who do we hate more. Seniors or kids? Or seniors or blind people?” said Rep. Jeff Roorda, D-Barnhart.

The House voted 110-46 on Thursday to pass an education budget bill that makes funding for the First Steps and special education programs dependent upon the tax-break repeal for senior and disabled renters.

The Senate passed that bill 29-4, but only after several Republicans and Democrats teamed up to bog down debate for a while. Among other things, they raised a technical point that neither the House nor Senate had made the children’s programs dependent upon the tax-break repeal when passing prior drafts of the budget, so a conference committee of House and Senate members should not have been able to make that switch when preparing a final version.

Opponents also said the budget bill could jeopardize the First Steps program, which the state education department says serves more than 5,000 children.

“We are putting these kids on the line for something that everybody in the room knows is not likely to happen,” said Sen. Ryan Silvey, R-Kansas City, a former House budget chairman who led Thursday’s opposition.

Nixon called the contingent funding “especially problematic and irresponsible” given that lawmakers also are proposing to spend $38 million on a new office building in Jefferson City.

“Building new offices for bureaucrats at the expense of children with developmental disabilities and low-income seniors reflects the wrong priorities,” Nixon said.

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Associated Press writer Chris Blank contributed to this report.

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Budget bills are HBs1-13.

Online: Legislature: http://www.moga.mo.gov

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