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MO Senate passes $21 billion state budget

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By AP/KWMU

Jefferson City, MO – The Missouri State Senate on Wednesday passed a nearly $21 billion state budget with little of the controversy that recent budget debates have included.

The budget is for the fiscal year that starts in July; debate was in stark contrast to heated debates in recent years when budgets were being cuts. This year's budget would increase state spending by 8-9%.

The budgets passed in the House and Senate have difference in them that still need to be worked out. But the two versions have several components in common. They include:
- A 4% raise for most state workers, with even higher raises for those in law enforcement and nursing.
- A 2% rise in state aid for colleges and universities.
- Sizable increases in spending for road construction and for elementary and secondary schools.

Left out of the raises are elected officials, but judges could get a 4% raise if negotiators choose the House budget over the Senate version.

"Government is expanding, government is growing," said Sen. Tim Green, D-St. Louis, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee who noted that such facts often get used against incumbent politicians. But Green suggested the growth occurring this time under a Republican administration, as opposed to Democratic-led spending growth of the 1990s is necessary and, in some cases, both overdue and still inadequate.

"It's easy to sit there and complain about the expansion of government spending, but to be able to provide services costs money," Green said.

The Senate version of the 2007 budget, like the one passed earlier by the House, generally follows the recommendations of Republican Gov. Matt Blunt.

Differences between the two chambers will have to be worked out by May 5.

Both versions include at least a $137 million increase in basic state aid for K-12 schools, marking the first-year phase-in of a new funding formula passed last year. The final dollar figure could be as high as a nearly $144 million increase, which the Senate included, citing more updated figures.

There's also at least $2.6 billion for the Department of Transportation in both versions. That's an increase of more than 50% over this year, primarily because of growth in federal and state money available for road construction.

Both versions also include the restoration of a slimmed-down Medicaid program for the working disabled and coverage of eyeglasses and wheel chair accessories for adult Medicaid recipients. All of those services, and many more, were eliminated last year.

And both versions also include higher state Medicaid payment rates for nursing homes and in-home care services. Doctors also could get a rate increase, if negotiators from the two chambers decide to go with the House version of the budget instead of the Senate's.

One of the Senate's more substantive debates Wednesday was on whether to stick with the percentage pay increase for employees or provide them a flat dollar amount, which would result in more money going to lower-income workers. "A flat rate helps enhance the lives of those who tend to be on the bottom of the totem pole, who in all reality tend to be the employees who do the difficult work," said Sen. Maida Coleman, D-St. Louis, whose efforts to restructure the pay increase failed.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Chuck Gross (R-St. Charles) countered that flat pay raises in past years had led to a compression of the state pay scale, where some supervisors earned little more than the people below them on the organizational chart. That is making it difficult for the state to retain some of its best employees, he said.

Perhaps the largest unresolved budget issue is how to spend a projected $450 million in proceeds from the potential sale of loans held by the Missouri Higher Education Loan Authority. The budget passed previously by the House contains one plan, but the House Budget Committee endorsed a new plan Tuesday night. The Senate budget includes yet another plan put forward by Blunt.

Gross said the Senate budget intentionally takes the opposite approach of the House version to keep all options open for using the MOHELA proceeds.

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