House votes to override governor on four budget items; Senate takes no action

The Missouri House voted to override the governor’s vetoes of four items in the state operating budget that became law in July.  The Senate has opted not to take up those items for consideration, so the governor’s vetoes will stand.

House Budget Committee Chairman Scott Fitzpatrick proposed the overrides of five vetoes the governor made in the state’s budget. The House voted for four of those overrides. (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

The House voted to override Governor Mike Parson’s (R) vetoes on line-items that support juvenile advocacy units in the Kansas City and St. Louis offices of the state public defender; time-critical centers for heart attack and stroke patients in Missouri hospitals; independent reviews by the Office of Child Advocate of local offices that serve troubled youths; and the oversight of grants to organizations that serve the deaf and blind.  The four items totaled more than $785,000.

House budget leaders said those items will be brought up for consideration when the legislature meets again in January, for the start of its regular session.

The House voted only on five budget items during its annual veto session, which began and ended Wednesday.  On the fifth budget item, $50,000 for grants to law enforcement agencies for the purchase of tourniquets for officers, the House fell short of the constitutional majority needed for an override.

Money for inspections of state-certified heart attack and stroke trauma centers

House Budget Committee Chairman Scott Fitzpatrick (R-Shell Knob) said after the governor vetoed money to fund inspections and certification of time-critical trauma centers for heart attack and stroke patients, his administration then said those inspections would be conducted anyway.  Fitzpatrick said he wants to see the inspections continue, but for them to be funded by pulling money from parts of the budget not intended for them violates the role of the legislature in the budget process.

“The governor vetoed all the people and all the money for that particular program and my opinion is once you do that, you can’t fund that program,” said Fitzpatrick.  “That is going to come to a head in January.  It is going to be an issue and it will get dealt with in a different way.”

The top Democrat on the House Budget Committee, Kip Kendrick (Columbia), agreed.

“I don’t know exactly how that program moves forward if the line’s been vetoed and the two [full-time employees] in the program have been vetoed.  We want to see the program move forward, but also how does the program exist if it doesn’t have a line and a place in the budget … I don’t want to see any of the services disrupted or interrupted, but that being said we need to make sure that we’re handling things appropriately.” said Kendrick.

Money for Office of Child Advocate review of local abuse investigations

$100,000 for the Office of Child Advocate would pay for two people that St. Charles Republican Kurt Bahr said would conduct a thorough review of how child abuses cases are processed.  He said the office needs those two additional staff members to keep up with that extra work.

“We are making sure that we’re taking care of kids in the foster care system, we’re making sure that any charge of child abuse is being looked at and is being processed correctly so that the system works for the most vulnerable in our society,” said Bahr.

Money for oversight of grants to organizations serving Missouri’s deaf and blind

The $45,000 for the Missouri Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing would pay for a person to oversee grants to organizations serving the deaf and blind.  That position was created as part of House Bill 1696 passed in 2016, which was sponsored by Representative Lyle Rowland (R-Cedarcreek).  He said those grants have been fully funded for the past two years.

“In our world today we want all moneys from government to have accountability, and we need to have a person in place in that commission that oversee this money, can answer questions, can develop the [requests for proposal], to allow this to take place to help the deaf, blind community,” said Rowland.

Shrewsbury Democrat Sarah Unsicker said the person currently overseeing these grants has a number of other jobs and is overwhelmed.

Representative Kip Kendrick (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

“People who are deaf/blind need additional services including language acquisition, communication assistance, and help with activities of daily living.  The Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing is not equipped to deal with these specialized needs of this population by themselves and needs this staff person to assist with these needs,” said Unsicker.

Money for public defenders for juveniles in Kansas City and St. Louis

Fitzpatrick said the $487,000 for juvenile advocacy units in the St. Louis and Kansas City offices of the public defender system would ensure that the constitutional right to counsel for juveniles in those regions would be met.

Bahr said those juveniles need proper defense attorneys to keep them from entering a “prison pipeline where they end up becoming a far larger cost onto our society as perpetual inmates.”

Representative Ingrid Burnett (D-Kansas City) said as a teacher she worked with elementary school children both before and after these public defender units for juveniles existed.

“The difference between the outcome for these children is staggering,” said Burnett.

Kansas City Democrat Barbara Washington said she has personal experience as a juvenile offender, and said the importance of juveniles having representation cannot be overstated.

“I sit here today because I had an attorney.  I sit here today because my parents could afford an attorney and I can state today that no one else who was incarcerated with me at that time was even able to graduate from high school, and that was because at that time there was not a public defender system totally dedicated to juvenile offender,” said Washington.

No hard feelings from the House toward the governor over budget vetoes

Both Fitzpatrick and Kendrick said the attempts to override Parson’s vetoes did not signal a battle between the House and the governor’s office.

“The governor came into office in June and basically had one month to review the budget at the same time he was trying to assemble his team.  I think that unfortunately there were some things they didn’t get the full picture on and had to make some decisions before they had all the information,” said Fitzpatrick.  “We’ll continue to work with the governor.  This is not intended to be an issue that is supposed to disrupt the relationship.  It’s just a part of the process.”

Kendrick was not critical of the governor, even regarding the veto of funding for time-critical trauma center inspections and the procedural issues surrounding its continued funding.

“Everybody makes mistakes, right?  We all make mistakes.  Sometimes you’ve just got to own up to the mistake that you make … I don’t think Governor Parson wanted to see this program disappear.  Soon after I think he realized that it’s an important program obviously not just to us here in the building but to everyone around the State of Missouri,” said Kendrick.

Legislature’s budget proposal would boost employee pay and benefits, study pay by job class

State employees would receive a pay raise beginning January 1 under the budget the legislature proposed last week, and their health care benefits would also be bolstered.

The ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee, Kip Kendrick (left) and House Budget Committee Chairman Scott Fitzpatrick (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications – click for larger version)

The legislature approved a budget that would increase by $700 the pay of employees making less than $70,000 a year.  Those making more than $70,000 would receive a 1-percent increase.

It would also pump $61-million into the Missouri Consolidated Health Care Plan – the insurance program for most state workers.  Budget makers say MCHCP was close to depleting its reserve funds, and they hope that the infusion of money in this budget will stave off premium increases for state employees.

“I don’t think there’s enough discussion in the state right now on the condition of Missouri Consolidated Health Care Plan,” said Columbia representative Kip Kendrick, the leading Democrat on the House Budget Committee.  “Any new funding that we could do for them this year – I’m glad we could get to $61-million in new decision item funding for Missouri Consolidated – it’ll help offset that.  I suspect there will be plan changes and premium increases, but it will help us at least keep those costs somewhat contained.”

The budget also includes an additional $350-per year increase in pay for prison guards.  House Budget Committee Chairman Scott Fitzpatrick (R-Shell Knob) said lawmakers have heard that the Department of Corrections has had increasing difficulty in hiring and retaining guards, and that is in part due to the offered salary not being great enough.

Fitzpatrick and Kendrick agreed that while there are employees throughout the state to whom they would like to give greater pay increases, corrections officers’ pay needed immediate attention.

“The raise we agreed to specifically for corrections officers combined with the raise for all state employees amounts to over a $1000 increase, which for some of these corrections officers who are making in the high 20s, low 30s per year I think is significant,” said Fitzpatrick.  “That, by itself, probably isn’t going to be a game-changer but hopefully it’ll help reduce turnover and help us with the issue we have with the vacancies in that area.”

$3.2-million would go to increase pay for public defenders.  Kendrick said the average public defender starting out is making $39,000 a year.

“Typically having a new law degree and an average debt of over $100,000, $39,000 does not go nearly far enough.  We needed to do what we could make sure we increased pay for public defenders to somewhat balance the justice system again,” said Kendrick.  “Nothing against prosecutors – prosecutors are great.  They tend to be paid much better than public defenders and when you have that it kind of tilts the balance even more so in the direction of the prosecutors.”

Kendrick said bolstering the state’s public defenders could save the state money by slowing the growth of its prison population.

The budget also includes a $6.3-million boost in pay for the state’s Highway Patrol troopers.

Fitzpatrick said perhaps more significant for state employees than the pay and benefits increases in this budget could be funding for a reward for performance study requested by the Office of Administration.

“We’re going to give them the opportunity to go out and really study all the job classes in the state – what we’re asking people to do and trying to compare and find out what the market rate is on that, so that we can get a real good sense of what job classes we really need to focus on,” said Fitzpatrick.  “I think we have some job classes in the state that are probably overpaid, I think we probably have some that are severely underpaid, and some that are probably right about where they need to be.”

Fitzpatrick said with the information from that study the legislature could begin, even next year, working to get Missouri out of last place among all states in employee pay.

The legislature’s budget lays out more than $28.3-billion in proposed spending of state-controlled money.  It was approved on Wednesday, two days ahead of the constitutional deadline, and will next be sent to the governor.