Push to spend $900M to help Missourians with developmental disabilities voted down

Staffing shortages have left Missourians with developmental, behavioral disorders languishing in hospitals, jails and shelters

By: - March 24, 2023 6:17 am

Members of the House Budget Committee work Thursday through spending bills that will fund state government operations in the coming year. (Rudi Keller/Missouri Independent)

Republican lawmakers rejected an effort Thursday evening to spend $900 million to assist hundreds of Missourians with developmental disabilities who lack proper residential support, including dozens languishing in hospitals, jails and homeless shelters.

State Rep. Deb Lavender, D-Manchester, asked the House Budget Committee for $910 million, all from federal tax dollars, to push base pay for direct service employees at community support agencies to $21 per hour. The effort failed on a party-line vote. 

The agencies blame low pay – the current base is $15 an hour – for staffing shortages that leave hundreds waiting for help. A rate study completed late last year concluded higher wages would help attract the hundreds of employees needed by those agencies and cut down on mandatory overtime for many workers in understaffed agencies.

Missourians with developmental disabilities languish in hospitals, jails, shelters

Lavender’s proposal combined $308 million from federal COVID-19 aid the state received last year with federal matching funds for the first year of the rate increases. In an emotional plea to the committee, Lavender argued the money should not be an obstacle since earlier in the day the House passed a $1 billion tax cut.

The agencies have had chronic staffing shortages. A rate increase last year pushed the base pay to $15 an hour but agencies complain they cannot compete against retail and service jobs that are far less stressful.

“We’ve talked about this, and talked about this and talked about this,” Lavender said. “So what are you going to do about it?”

The debate on Lavender’s amendment came near the end of a daylong session where the committee worked on revisions to the $51.6 billion budget proposed by Gov. Mike Parson. On Tuesday, Chairman Cody Smith presented his revisions to the budget and the full committee had its turn on Thursday.

Smith’s plan from Tuesday and the decisions debated Thursday made hundreds of cuts to Parson’s plan, from small items like $3,045 for operations in the state Office of Budget and Planning to $859 million earmarked for widening portions of Interstate 70. As a result, the budget heading to the House floor would spend about $1.5 billion less general revenue, and $2.6 billion less overall, than the budget proposed by Parson.

In the debate over Lavender’s amendment, Republicans objected to both the source of funds and the cost of the rate increases.

Rep. Dirk Deaton, R-Noel, said he opposed the increase because it would use money already allocated for building projects in the budget passed last year. Deaton is the sponsor of the tax cut passed by the House Thursday afternoon. 

“That would mean there are about $300 million worth of projects in fiscal 2023 we would have to throw overboard,” Deaton said.

Lavender suggested that the money for construction could be replaced with general revenue from the $5 billion surplus in the state treasury.

State Rep. Doug Richey, R-Excelsior Springs, said he didn’t like that the amendment would increase the Department of Mental Health budget by an unacceptable amount.

“That would be a seismic increase in the department budget,” Richey said.

And Smith said he was concerned about the need to tap general revenue to pay the higher rates in future years.

“If this does not pass over this legislative session,” he said, “we can talk about some increases in a way that would be sustainable.”

State Rep. Deb Lavender, D-Manchester, speaks during debate on March 1 in the Missouri House (Tim Bommel/Missouri House Communications).

After the vote, Rep. Peter Merideth of St. Louis, the ranking Democrat on the committee, accused Republicans of caring more about buildings than people. The GOP majority has repeatedly ignored warnings from service agencies that they cannot pay enough to keep staff and care for vulnerable people, he said.

“Coming back next year isn’t good enough,” Merideth said. “I am sorry to make you sit here and listen to us saying shame on you again, but shame on you again.”

Over the course of the day, a similar story played out.

Most amendments proposed by Democrats were defeated, including proposals to increase pay in the Missouri Department of Transportation and provide a guaranteed 7% increase in state aid to colleges and universities. Smith’s position was key, and his opposition also killed a proposal from Rep. Jim Kalberloh, R-Lowry City, to provide an $8 million advertising budget to the Missouri Lottery.

The day started with a debate over child care subsidies and school-based pre-kindergarten programs. In the budget going to the House floor, child care providers would get a rate increase but school districts wouldn’t get money to offer pre-kindergarten classes.

In his Tuesday proposals, Smith cut $134.5 million from the two programs$78.5 million sought by Parson to increase rates for child care providers and $56 million to pay for early education programs in public and charter schools.

One of the first actions Thursday was an amendment from Smith to restore $50 million to the program subsidizing child care for lower income families. The initial cut, he said, was based on what he saw as a flaw in a rate study conducted for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

The $78.5 million would have increased provider rates to 75% of the levels recommended by the study. Smith said his funding is a “placeholder” intended to show the commitment of lawmakers to fund higher rates while the rate study is reviewed.

“It takes some time to ramp up these increases over the course of time,” Smith said. “Fifty million dollars is a very strong commitment here to increase the child care subsidy.”

Every Democratic amendment to further increase the subsidies, or to restore the funding for school-based programs, went down to defeat or was blocked by procedural moves. Merideth said Smith’s budget plan from Tuesday effectively locked away the massive general revenue surplus. 

“We are just making it so House members have no ability to determine how money is spent,” Merideth said.

Parson’s proposal for school-based pre-kindergarten programs would have funded seats for every 4-year-old in a family eligible for free and reduced cost school meals. Merideth proposed spending $138 million to fund a program open to all four-year olds.

Several Republicans said they like that better than Parson’s limited program but that wasn’t enough to pass it over Smith’s objections.

Rep. Brenda Shields, R-St. Joseph, is sponsoring legislation to provide tax credits to promote child care. 

“I am very interested in expanding it beyond the legislation I have filed to all students in the state,” Shields said. “We know we get great results with the return on our investment.”

This article has been updated since it was initially published.

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Rudi Keller
Rudi Keller

Rudi Keller covers the state budget and the legislature. A graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, he spent 22 of his 32 years in journalism covering Missouri government and politics for the Columbia Daily Tribune, where he won awards for spot news and investigative reporting.