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Most of budget for Missouri state government approved

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By AP/KWMU

Jefferson City, MO – Missouri lawmakers Tuesday approved most of the state's nearly $21 billion budget for the fiscal year that starts in July. Remaining budget bills are expected to pass today (Wednesday).

The budget includes more money for road construction and schools and colleges. It also restores a small portion of last year's Medicaid cuts and raises the pay of nearly all state employees.

The budget anticipates the largest growth in government since the state's finances foundered five years ago. Unlike recent years when lawmakers clashed over spending cuts and citizens protested at the Capitol, this year's budget of general increases prompted comparatively little dissension or tension.

The $20.8 billion operating budget is 8.6% larger than the current budget year. That's the largest increase since a 13.2% hike in 2002. Missouri's budget went backward for two years after that. And when Republican Gov. Matt Blunt took office in January 2005, he pursued further cuts to slow a budget he described as still out of control, particularly because of rising Medicaid expenses.

Blunt dismissed any suggestion that Missouri was now embarking on a spending spree. "The budget surplus that exists this year that allowed us to make these investments didn't just magically appear," Blunt said. "It is a product of what we did last year, to bring spending in line with revenue."

Largely as a result of last year's legislative actions, the Medicaid health care program for the poor had 138,000 fewer participants in March than when it topped 1 million enrollees a year earlier. Because of that, some Democrats described the next year's more flush budget as a disgrace. "Those 100,000 people didn't disappear, their health care needs didn't disappear," said Rep. Margaret Donnelly (D-St. Louis). Those cuts "remain in this bill as a silent and possibly deadly virus that robs people of their health care, their independence and their peace of mind."

A couple thousand people could regain Medicaid coverage under the budget, which funds the restoration of a program for the working disabled. Other Medicaid recipients would regain government-funded eyeglasses and wheel chair accessories, both of which were cut last year. At nearly $6 billion, Medicaid remains the largest program in the budget.

The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education would get about $5 billion, including a $128 million increase for the newly revamped formula that distributes money to K-12 schools. Colleges and universities would get a 2% increase, which would still leave them short of their budgeted high point in 2002.

There's also a new item in next year's budget, $10 million to provide $1,000 scholarships to college freshman, as long as they attended their final three years of high school in Missouri with 2.5 grade point average.

The Missouri Department of Transportation would receive a record $2.6 billion ,an increase of more than 50% over this year primarily because of growth in federal and state money for road construction. The budget also includes higher subsidies for the Amtrak passenger train service between St. Louis and Kansas City.

State employees would get at least a 4% pay raise, with even larger increases going to nurses, law officers and corrections workers. Judges, lawmakers and elected state officials would be excluded.

The budget also includes raises for certain private employees, including doctors and nursing home aides who treat Medicaid patients, people who provide in-home care to the elderly, disabled or mentally retarded, and professionals who provide psychiatric, alcohol and drug abuse counseling. "We are so excited, I'm practically brought to tears," said Judy Alexander, president and CEO of St. Charles-based Emmaus Homes Inc., whose employees provide care to the mentally and developmentally disabled.

"These folks have a tough, tough job and we depend on them every day."

But others said the state still was not doing enough. Rep. Yaphett El-Amin (D-St. Louis) and Rep. Rob Schaaf (R- St. Joseph) bemoaned that the final budget would raise the Medicaid reimbursement rates for doctors by less than initially proposed in the House.

Schaaf, who is also a physician, said Missouri's rates are so low that many specialists refuse to see Medicaid patients. He argued it was wrong for Missouri's budget to devote $25 million to a new health-care technology fund instead of paying more to the people who provide health care.

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