The House members came back from the Easter weekend in full stride. We passed out 30 consent bills to the Senate, and we are ahead of schedule on the budget. Here are some highlights for the week.
Budget Bills Move to House-Senate Conference (HBs 1-13)
The Senate approved its version of the Fiscal Year 2016 budget this week and sent back the 13 bills comprising the budget to the House for consideration. House members quickly voted to send 12 of the appropriations bills to conference where key negotiators will iron out the differences between the two chambers. This is the normal procedure each year.
The key area of contention that will have to be worked out resides in the budgets for the departments of social services, health and mental health. The House used the normal budgeting procedure by putting in funding lines for specific programs within the departments. The Senate deviated from the script by using a lump sum budgeting method that gives the departments a pot of money they can spend in the way they choose. The Senate then took that lump sum total and cut 4-6% from the budgets for health, mental health, and social services.
The Senate made cuts that generated approximately $130 million in additional revenue, and then used the dollars to bolster funding in other critical areas. The $74 million increase for K-12 education approved by the House was bumped up to an $84 million increase in the Senate. The House-approved $12 million increase to higher education was moved to a $27.6 million increase.
During discussion on the House floor, members were supportive of the idea of increasing funding to education, but concerned that the cuts to health, mental health and social services would deny critical services to some of Missouri's most vulnerable citizens. As pointed out on the floor, the lump sum method would throw out any fiscal oversight the legislature has over the executive branch. As you might guess, I have a problem with this policy of giving away legislative powers and authority as well as possibly cutting vital state services.
As of now, the selected members from the House and Senate will meet in an attempt to find common ground for the budget. We hope to have the budget bills completed and to the governor's desk by Friday, April 17, which would be a full three weeks ahead of the constitutional deadline.
Tax Amnesty Sent to Governor's Desk (HB 384)
The state would generate millions of dollars in additional revenue under a plan now on its way to the governor's desk for approval. The House and Senate gave final approval this week to tax amnesty legislation that would allow Missourians to pay back taxes without penalty. The bill would set up a period between September 1 and November 30 when delinquent taxpayers could pay off their tax debt. The bill would then require those who utilize the amnesty period to comply with all state tax laws for a period of eight years.
Lawmakers believe the tax amnesty period could generate $60 million in new revenues for the state. The state has previously authorized tax amnesty periods that brought in approximately $74 million for fiscal year 2002 and $42 million for fiscal year 2003.
House Approves Hospital Disclosure Requirement (HB 712)
The House advanced an important piece of consumer protection addressing a current issue where many hospitals are placing patients on observational status without their knowledge. For Medicare recipients, observational status means they do not get nursing home benefits, which then translates into a bill in the thousands of dollars that they were not expecting. The bill approved by the House simply says hospitals must give written notices when a patient is admitted or placed on observational status.
House Moves to Bolster Missouri's Port System (HB 110)
The House took up and approved legislation this week to spur additional trade and economic development through Missouri's port system. The legislation would authorize three different tax credits to create growth in international trade and cargo capacity for ports across the state of Missouri.
Supporters say the bill will lead to job creation and economic growth. The bill sponsor noted that investment in Missouri's ports provides a 15 to 1 return.
The bill includes taxpayer safety provisions so that the tax credit will only be used if companies increase their use of Missouri ports, which will provide an overall benefit to the state. The bill also requires the Department of Economic Development to deliver a report detailing the benefits provided by the tax credits to the General Assembly prior to March 1, 2017 and every two years thereafter. With the upgrades of the Panama Canal reaching the final stages, river traffic on the Mississippi is expected to significantly increase in the next few years.