Missouri Senate panel approves lump-sum budgets, reduced increases for 3 departments

A plan from the Senate's top budget official aimed at limiting costs in the fastest-grown parts of the state's budget faced criticism from some Republican lawmakers even it moved forward Thursday.

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The Senate Appropriations Committee approved a budget proposal creating lump-sum grants for most programs in the Department of Social Services, Department of Mental Health and Department of Health and Senior Services.

Committee chairman Sen. Kurt Schaefer's 2016 budget proposal would reduce the general revenue totals for the Social Services Department by 6 percent — or about $100 million — compared with the House's version, and a combined 4 percent, about $30 million, for the others. It would still be a net increase over the actual spending in fiscal year 2014.

Some Republican lawmakers questioned whether the plan would cede too much power to the departments and reduce legislative oversight. Sen. Mike Parson, R-Bolivar, said the Legislature would be losing the authority to stop the departments from misusing funds.

"We're absolutely turning it all over to the bureaucracy," Parson said.

House Budget Committee member Rep. Sue Allen, R-Town and Country, said the plan would limit lawmakers' input.

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"Certainly there are many areas where departments misspend and need to have consequences," Allen said. "It negates a lot of the work that's been done."

But Schaefer said the governor and departments are already manipulating the budget and deciding what to fund because Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon withholds money the Republican-controlled Legislature appropriates for specific programs.

"What we're going to control is the dollar amount they can spend," he said.

Schaefer said his proposal reins in spending in the social welfare programs that have accounted for the bulk of the increases in general revenue in recent years. The budget proposal includes a surplus of about $70 million, which Schaefer said should mean the governor cannot withhold funds from particular programs.

Domestic violence shelters, adult dental care for Medicaid recipients, medical care for pregnant women and increased payments for service providers are all carved out and funded separately within the departments. Republican lawmakers have supported those programs, while Nixon has withheld funding from them this year.

One advocate for victims of domestic violence said she was pleased to see those programs funded. However, Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence Executive Director Colleen Coble said she was concerned about how the overall cuts might affect victims' access to other assistance.

The departments and programs in question "are interconnected when it comes down to family and people who need those services," Coble said.

The $26.1 billion budget plan also includes larger increases for education than either the House or Nixon recommended. The Senate committee's proposal would increase basic state aid for public school districts by $84 million over fiscal year 2015 and provides $27.6 million more for performance-based funding for community colleges and four-year universities.

The budget now goes to the full Senate, which is expected to take it up next week. The plan would then go to conference so differences between the House and Senate proposals can be worked out.