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Nixon Unveils Health, Education-Heavy Agenda

Gov. Nixon
Nixon speaking at Mercy Hospital in Springfield in July 2012 - Credit Shane Franklin

Missouri Governor Jay Nixon used his State of the State address Monday night to reiterate proposals made during recent stops across the state, including Medicaid expansion, but also endorsed a bond issuance, and made an ardent call for ethics reform.

More than $164 million of the Democratic Governor’s proposed budget for 2014 will need legislative approval, no guarantee with a Republican-controlled legislature, which holds a veto proof majority.

But the Governor, as well as Budget Director Linda Luebbering, say they’re confident that further educating lawmakers on issues like Medicaid expansion will develop the understanding needed for passage.

“Moving forward with this project will bring an additional $5.7 billion to Missouri for the first three calendar years – at no additional cost to the state,” Nixon said. “The University of Missouri estimates this will generate an additional 24,000 jobs – and that’s just in 2014.”

During a press briefing prior to the Governor’s address, Luebbering said that Medicaid expansion is estimated to impact 300,000 Missourians within a couple years, and that this proposal will ensure that tax dollars paid my Missourians come back to the state to help strengthen the health care system.

“The budget also reflects general revenue savings of $31 million, and new revenue of $16 million, for a net positive impact on General Revenue of $47 million related to that Medicaid coverage for low income working adults,” Luebbering said.

Republicans have expressed doubt, saying, among other things, they don’t trust the federal government to live up to its promise of funding 100 percent of the program for the first three years, and eventually 90 percent. Nixon said he supports rolling back the program if Washington fails to keep that promise.

“I support including a provision that rolls back the Medicaid expansion if Washington doesn’t honor its financial commitment. If Washington drops the ball, we’ll do what’s right for Missouri.”

But House Speaker Tim Jones, who offered the Republican response Monday, is skeptical in the state’s ability to roll back such funding, should lawmakers agree to accept it. He deferred to House Budget Chairman Rick Stream.

“The federal money that we get, which is over $8 billion in this budget we’re in right now, and it will go over $9 billion if Medicaid expansion is included, it comes with heavy strings attached. I mean you can’t, you know, hiccup, without the federal government coming in and telling you’re spending the money wrong. If we start to accept it, I think we’re gonna run into a problem trying to ratchet back,” Stream said.

Jones called the Governor’s “rhetoric inspiring,” but that it lacked addressing the state’s real challenges.

“Which is the fact that our entire health care industry is now open to endless and limitless litigation. Whereas our neighboring state, Kansas, has a huge advantage over us now in the fact that their medical malpractice caps were upheld last year, constitutionally, under their state constitution at a much lower level. I heard no mention of how we’re going to address that health care crisis,” Jones said.

The border war with Kansas was a key talking point for Jones, noting that House and Senate members from communities along the western Missouri border are “extremely concerned.”

The Governor’s lack of comments regarding transportation funding, tax cuts, and lack of specificity on major issues were troublesome for Jones. But he did welcome more dialog regarding Nixon’s call for a bonding program, which the Governor says now is the time to implement given low interest rates and the recent retirement of bond debt. He says a bond issuance will allow the state to establish a permanent, low-interest loan fund dedicated to improving our local schools.

“Which is why I’m proposing the creation of the BOOST fund. BOOST stands for Building Opportunities in Our Schools Today. Because, folks, let’s not kid ourselves. If we want our children to get a first-rate education and compete in a 21stCentury global economy, they’ll need first-rate, 21stCentury facilities,” Nixon said.

The bond issuance would also include funds for cutting-edge university research facilities he says are critical to our competitiveness, such as engineering, math and science, and an upgrade in Missouri’s state parks to boost tourism. And calling it a “moral responsibility” to patients and their caregivers, Nixon proposed using bond proceeds to build a new and improved Fulton State Mental Hospital.

How would the Governor pay for the bond issuance? By getting the state’s tax credit system under control, he says.

“Last year tax credit redemptions grew to a staggering $629 million – that’s one-twelfth of our entire general revenue budget. That’s not fiscally responsible. This is the year to get comprehensive, fiscally responsible tax credit reform legislation to my desk, and get smart, strategic investments in our state moving forward.”

While Speaker Jones believes tax reform is an area where common ground can be reached, he has his doubts that lumping reform with the bonding program is the right approach.

“I think you run into problems a lot of time in this legislature when you start tying bills together and leveraging ones against another. I’d rather not do business that way,” Jones said.

As he had stressed since the start of the New Year, Nixon reiterated his call to improve education as a means for economic development in the state. The Governor wants to add $150 million to education funding, including $10 million for the Missouri Preschool Program, $66 million for the K-12 foundation formula, and $34 million for colleges and universities based on performance.

And despite its biggest contribution to the program, $66 million for K-12 falls well short, about $620 million, under where the program should have been by now, according to Budget Director Luebbering.

Nixon also wants to increase the state’s number of school days from 174 to 180, bringing that in line with the national average.

“Adding six more days to the next school year will give teachers more time to work with their students, and give kids more time to learn,” Nixon said.

Additionally, $1 million for the A+ Scholarship Program would allow the program to be expanded statewide, according to the Governor’s budget, though Rep. Stream says $1 million seems a small number to service 100 percent of school districts.

Total appropriations for the Governor’s recommended operating budget are just under $8.3 billion, the biggest chunk of which will benefit elementary and secondary education, at 35.5 percent. Human services accounts for just under 30 percent of the budget, while higher education is more than 10 percent.

In one of his most passionate statements of the night, Nixon vowed to do everything in his power to get campaign finance reform on the ballot for voters to decide should the legislature fail to bring a bill to his desk.

“The era of unlimited contributions to candidates must end.”

Rep. Jason Smith, the speaker pro tem, says the Governor’s attempt to limit campaign contributions is his way of passing laws to govern his own activity.

“Yet he’s one of the biggest abusers of receiving large campaign contributions, but he’s called for it every year. And if the Governor truly wants to be a leader he needs to lead by example and not, not taking excessive amounts of campaign contributions. Let’s lead by example, don’t lead from behind,” Smith said.

For KSMU news, I’m Scott Harvey.