Missouri lawmakers send budget with unemployment forgiveness, more public defenders to Parson

·4 min read

Missouri would be able to hire 53 more attorneys for its woefully short-staffed public defender system under the state budget lawmakers sent to Gov. Mike Parson on Friday.

The $35 billion budget includes $3.6 million in state funds for the new attorneys to eliminate the lawyer waiting lists for indigent criminal defendants that a state judge this year found unconstitutional.

More than 2,000 low-income Missourians charged with crimes are waiting for a public defender in violation of their rights to be represented by an attorney, a Cole County judge ruled in March.

Mary Fox, director of the Missouri State Public Defender System, told lawmakers last month hiring her full request of 53 new attorneys across the state would allow her office to clear the existing backlogs and eliminate the need for waiting lists altogether in counties where cases are rising — largely due to a surge of drug and property crimes, she said.

The budget includes $330 million in federal aid for rental assistance, and $48 million from the federal CARES Act to forgive the state’s share of unemployment payments the Department of Labor and Industrial Relations issued erroneously to 46,000 jobless Missourians during the pandemic.

Legislation forcing the state to waive the payments has moved through the General Assembly with near-unanimous bipartisan support this year. But it still has yet to pass the Senate, where it recently stalled over Republican attempts to lower the amount of time recipients can collect unemployment benefits.

Also in the budget is a new $50 million loan program for municipal utilities that racked up costs during the deep freeze in February. Missouri cities that provide natural gas and electricity to their residents saw their gas costs skyrocket to up to 80 times when a cold snap froze gas well heads and increased demand across the nation.

Not included in the budget was $128 million in state funds that Parson requested to pay for expanded Medicaid eligibility, the subject of the most contentious debate this legislative session. After House Republicans stripped the funding out of the budget, the Senate refused to reinstate it last week.

Without the funding, the future of the voter-approved expansion now lies with Parson. He has not said whether he will allow an estimated 275,000 low-income Missourians to enroll in the health care program when they become eligible on July 1 under provisions in the state constitution.

Last week, he said in a Tweet that his office “will assess our options and legal requirements.” His spokeswoman could not immediately be reached for comment on Friday.

Democrats urged him not to deny the coverage.

“As a former sheriff, the governor built a solid reputation for respecting and upholding the law,” House Minority Leader Crystal Quade, a Springfield Democrat, said in a statement. “We don’t believe he will sully that reputation by playing political games with the lives of 275,000 of his fellow Missourians and refusing to fulfill his constitutional duty.”

If the governor does not allow the expansion to move forward, the state faces an all-but-certain lawsuit from expansion proponents. If he does, the Medicaid program is likely to run out of money in the middle of the fiscal year, forcing Parson to ask the lawmakers for funds they’ve already refused.

“I’m inclined to believe he will determine the Medicaid expansion cannot be implemented without the corresponding appropriation,” House Budget Chair Cody Smith, a Carthage Republican, said in a news conference Friday, adding that if Parson returns to ask for more funds, “The General Assembly has spoken very clearly about how we feel on this ... I don’t expect that to change.”

A majority of the money intended for expansion has been redistributed in the budget in the form of increased funding for the developmentally disabled, higher payments for nursing homes and new mental health services.

The Missouri legislature has one week left in the legislative session to tackle Republican leaders’ priorities, such as an increase to the gas tax pushed by Senate President Dave Schatz, of Sullivan, and a bill to nullify federal gun laws in the state, favored by House Speaker Rob Vescovo, of Arnold.

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