Negotiators charged with crafting a final version of Missouri's $24 billion budget decided Thursday to make no decisions until the Senate takes action on a new funding plan for veterans' nursing homes.
The stalemate appeared likely to drag the budget talks into next week, causing lawmakers to bump up against a May 11 constitutional deadline to send a budget to Gov. Jay Nixon. Missouri's new budget year begins July 1.
Different versions of the budget put forth by the governor, House and Senate all assume that Missouri's seven nursing homes for military veterans will receive a dedicated funding stream so that they no longer have to compete for general state revenues. Legislative and executive leaders have agreed on an outline for that earmarked funding source, but a bill authorizing it has yet to be debated by the full the Senate.
On Thursday, a budget conference committee of House and Senate members convened briefly, but only to say that no further meetings would occur until the Senate acts on the veterans' legislation.
"The veterans' home issue is kind of the linchpin of this entire budget right now," said House Budget Committee Chairman Ryan Silvey, R-Kansas City.
Veterans' homes have been funded with a mixture of payments from their residents, federal funds, state general revenues and a small portion of the state fees collected from casinos. But the main trust fund for the Missouri Veterans Commission, which had $80 million in 1999, has shrunk to $17 million after being repeatedly tapped to offset cuts in general revenue appropriations.
Lawmakers have developed an elaborate money-shifting plan to shore up finances for the veterans' homes.
The latest plan would redirect more than $30 million of casino fees from early childhood programs to the veterans' fund. The early childhood programs would instead receive $35 million from Missouri's share of a nationwide settlement with tobacco companies. That would leave less tobacco money available for the Medicaid health care program and general revenue pool. So general revenues would be pulled from the basic funding formula for K-12 public schools and replaced with an assumed increase of $35 million in Missouri Lottery proceeds.
It's not clear how the lottery would come up with the additional money to transfer to education.
May Scheve Reardon, the executive director of the Missouri Lottery, declined Thursday to discuss how that money might be generated. She said the lottery doesn't publicly respond to legislative proposals.
The House passed a bill Wednesday that would implement the funding-source swaps for veterans' homes and early childhood legislation. But the Senate has not brought that bill up for a vote.
Senate President Pro Tem Rob Mayer said he wants to instead take up of a version that was endorsed Thursday by a Senate committee. That bill has a similar funding plan for veterans' homes and early childhood programs, but also includes wording prohibiting officials from implementing a quality rating program for child care centers and preschools unless specifically directed to do so by state law. The Senate committee version also includes wording aimed at shutting down the Sue Sheer Institute for Women in Public Life at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, which some Republican lawmakers contend has served as a training ground for Democrats.
The child care rating system and women's institute both were on a list of budget changes sought by nine Republican senators who temporarily stalled debate on the budget last week.
Mayer, a former Senate Appropriations Committee chairman, said he believes the budget stalemate involving veterans' homes can be resolved.
"I'm confident that on May 11, we'll have a budget," said Mayer, R-Dexter.