- Associated Press - Monday, April 6, 2015

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) - The Missouri Senate plans to debate on Tuesday a budget proposal that cuts spending for seniors, people with mental illness and foster children as well as making a major policy change - it budgets lump sum amounts that state departments could allocate rather than specific amounts for each program.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Kurt Schaefer’s fiscal year 2016 budget proposal creates lump sum grants for most services within the Department of Social Services, Department of Mental Health and Department of Health and Senior Services.

It cuts $130 million in general revenue from the House proposal for most programs within those departments.

Schaefer said last week the cuts would leave the budgets of the departments higher than actual spending in fiscal year 2014. But the combined totals of the three departments would be lower than 2014 by about $69 million and below the current fiscal year ending June 30 by about $35 million, according to the Senate proposals and previous budgets.

Budget director Linda Luebbering said the proposed cuts would be magnified because departments would also get less in federal matching funds, increasing the total amount of the cuts to about $300 million. She said spending has increased because of greater need.

“The departments are serving more seniors, more people with disabilities, more people with mental illness, more foster kids,” Luebbering said. “Even if spending is up a little bit, it’s because demand for their services are up. It’s not like they’ve got extra money for fun stuff.”

The three departments administer many social welfare programs - including the Medicaid health program for the poor, cash assistance, food stamps, in-home and community services for people with disabilities and foster care for children. Together, they account for nearly half of every dollar of general revenue the state spends.

Schaefer said the unsustainable growth of these departments needs to be reined in. Departments frequently request more than they need, leading to “fluff” in their budgets, he said.

“They have a lot of money that they have built into these lines that they just don’t need,” Schaefer said. “They’re not going to tell us where to find it. It just doesn’t work that way.”

A lump sum style plan for the entire Missouri budget was last floated in 2003.

That House Republican proposal was criticized as passing the buck on spending cuts and was eventually rewritten by the Senate before it got to the governor’s desk. It reflected a similar frustration to the one expressed by Schaefer now. Then, department directors under then-Gov. Bob Holden, a Democrat, generally refused to suggest cuts as requested by House Republican leaders.

The House Budget Committee Chairman at the time was Carl Bearden, now head of conservative advocacy group United for Missouri. He said the proposal coming out of the Senate, which has previously been more bound to tradition, gives it a better shot of moving forward.

“There is a lot of frustration in the Legislature and particularly here in the budget that departments aren’t being as forthright as they should be,” Bearden said.

The three departments have spent more than 99 percent of general revenue in fiscal year 2013 and 2014.

Departments do request more authority to spend possible federal dollars, Luebbering said, but they rarely do not use any general revenue.

The largest general revenue funded programs in the Department of Social Services are child welfare programs for abused or neglected children, Medicaid and child care subsidies for low-income working parents, Department of Social Services spokeswoman Rebecca Woelfel said.

The department has seen growth in the number of abused and neglected children as well as growth in Medicaid enrollment - currently at its highest since May 2012 - Woelfel said. Higher costs have also been driven by increasing costs of drugs in the Medicaid program, which primarily serves children, the elderly, blind and individuals with disabilities.

Department of Mental Health spokeswoman Debra Walker said state psychiatric hospitals are already above occupancy. Community-based support for people with developmental disabilities, treatment for those with chronic health conditions and mental health issues and substance abuse treatment programs would also be affected by the proposed cuts, she said.

“Missouri also has growth each year in the number of individuals with developmental disabilities that go into crisis due to the death of a caregiver, a worsening medical condition or other circumstances,” she said in a written statement.

Demand for services has never been greater, according to Department of Health and Human Services spokesman Ryan Hobart. Cuts would affect home-delivered meals for seniors, health coverage for Missouri residents with HIV/AIDS and disease tracking and surveillance, Hobart said in an email.

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Associated Press writer Summer Ballentine contributed to this report.

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