Had the governor chosen to veto any line items in the new budget, as he did last year, the General Assembly could have attempted to override his veto. This year that wasn’t necessary, but he can still withhold money from various programs if he determines revenues are not keeping up with budget projections. Last year he withheld a substantial amount of money, and still has not released approximately $300 million from the FY-15 budget, a budget that ends July 30 of this year. With general revenue for 2015 up by 7.7%, no doubt he will be releasing the rest of the money before the FY-16 budget takes effect on July 1. Constitutional Amendment 10, approved by voters last year, will allow legislators to override his withholds with a two-thirds majority of both chambers.
Last week the Missouri House and Senate did override the governor’s veto of Senate Bill 24—the state’s welfare reform legislation. This legislation is an effort to reform Missouri’s system of welfare, ultimately seeking to do a better job of moving recipients off government programs and back into the work force. Under this new law, welfare recipients must seek and obtain employment to be able to receive benefits. Lifetime eligibility for these benefits will be reduced to 45 months, down from the previous 60-month time period.
In times past, Missouri has failed to adopt many needed welfare reforms. Consequently, it has become increasingly necessary to take more aggressive steps to help restructure the welfare system in our state. Savings from restructuring can be reinvested in incentives, such as childcare, job training, and transportation services to get these individuals back to work more quickly. One of the most important steps in escaping poverty is to take a job and participate in the work force.
Currently, there are many benefits available for those who are eligible for state assistance. TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families) provides cash and other services for families in need. The program is financed through a combination of both state funds and federal funds in the form of block grants given to individual states, and each state determines the benefit and eligibility levels for recipients. In addition to TANF, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)—a program that provides vouchers to low income families to purchase food—is accessible for qualifying individuals. This program is fully financed by the federal government. Medicaid is available to those who are eligible, with annual expenditures per household in Missouri of over $8,000. Another program—Women, Infants, and Children (WIC)—provides federal grants to states for food, healthcare, and nutrition education for low-income pregnant women, as well as to infants and children up to five years of age who are found to be nutritionally at risk. There is also housing and utility assistance available, with an average monthly benefit of approximately $700 in Missouri. Furthermore, there is the emergency food assistance program that provides food to low-income individuals, both directly to families for home consumption and for the distribution of prepared meals. We have numerous programs designed to temporarily assist individuals until they can get back on their feet and back to work.
A bill vetoed by Governor Nixon that we may attempt to override during the last week of session is House Bill 150, a bill seeking to change unemployment benefits from 20 weeks down to 13 weeks. This bill sets up a “sliding scale” and benefits would vary between 13 and 20 weeks, with 20 weeks available only when the statewide unemployment rate is 9% or higher, and 13 weeks when the unemployment rate is less than 6% statewide; then a laid-off worker could only collect thirteen weeks of benefits. The longest a laid-off worker could receive benefits is 20 weeks, and that is only if the statewide unemployment rate is higher than 9%. This is to prevent the exhaustion of unemployment trust fund monies. Missouri has had an on-going problem of running out of money in the unemployment trust fund, especially during times of a recession. When this fund is depleted (as it has been twice in the recent past), the state government must borrow to continue to pay for unemployment obligations, and this becomes a liability to the state we well as to state businesses. It is important we do all we can to keep this from happening again.
The purpose of House Bill 150 is to keep the unemployment trust fund solvent in the future in order that the state can continue to help those who need it. Though House Bill 150 contains many needed reforms, it remains to be seen if it will be overridden this week.