- Associated Press - Thursday, May 4, 2017

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) - Missouri senators on Thursday passed a plan to prevent budget cuts that could put more than 8,300 seniors and people with disabilities at risk of losing in-home and nursing services.

Senators voted 28-5 in favor of the legislation, which originally would have shielded those services by ending a tax break for low-income senior and disabled renters.

Revisions made in the Senate instead would pull unused money from a wide variety of dedicated funds.

“As budget chair, I haven’t slept too well,” Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Dan Brown said on the Senate floor. He called the change a “nice alternative” that would provide relief to programs for some of the state’s most vulnerable residents.

New Republican Gov. Eric Greitens initially proposed slashing services for seniors and people with disabilities in order to save money, although he later backtracked.

At issue is lagging revenue growth that left state budgeters scrambling to balance the budget for next fiscal year, which begins in July. Greitens and his Democratic predecessor, Jay Nixon, have cut a combined $350 million in spending this fiscal year to offset revenue shortfalls.

The budget proposal for next fiscal year that was passed by lawmakers Thursday still could mean cuts to services for seniors and people with disabilities, though not as harsh as what Greitens recommended.

Without additional money, the spending plan would put more than 7,900 at risk of losing in-home care and another 390 at risk of losing nursing care. The change would save roughly $19 million in general revenue by making applicants show a greater level of need to qualify for services.

House Budget Committee Chairman Scott Fitzpatrick has pushed to end a tax break for low-income seniors and people with disabilities in order to pay for those services, but the proposal met pushback in the Senate.

A group of senators on Thursday instead pitched an idea to use unspent money from dedicated funds. Under the revision passed by senators, the administration commissioner would take $35.4 million from those funds in order to maintain the current level of in-home and nursing services for seniors and disabled Missourians.

The proposal now heads back to the House. Lawmakers have until May 12 to send the bill to Greitens‘ desk.

The budget plan passed Thursday also increases funding for K-12 schools but cuts spending on higher education.

Legislators sent a package of budget bills to Greitens that would increase basic aid for public elementary and secondary schools by roughly $48 million to a total of nearly $3.4 billion.

If signed by Greitens, Missouri would hit funding goals outlined in state law for the first time since fiscal year 2009, Department of Elementary and Secondary Education spokeswoman Sarah Potter said in an email.

Greitens recommended a slight increase, but his plan would have fallen about $45 million short of the law’s funding target.

House Democrats noted that lawmakers last year lowered the target called for under state law. Minority Caucus Chairman Rep. Michael Butler, a St. Louis Democrat, said basic aid “is capped to not really fill the entire disparity between rich and poor districts.”

Still, he and other Democratic and Republican legislative leaders praised the increase included in the final budget.

Lawmakers also spared money for school busing that Greitens had recommended cutting by about $25 million compared to this fiscal year.

Public colleges and universities fared worse. Legislators cut core funding by 6.6 percent.

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