Governor pitches plan to address violent crime

JEFFERSON CITY (AP) — Gov. Mike Parson used his State of the State speech on Wednesday to reaffirm his support for gun rights and pitch other ideas to address an uptick in violence in the state’s biggest cities.

Parson and the Republican-led Legislature face heightened pressure to act after a particularly violent 2019. St. Louis, Kansas City and Springfield all have seen spikes in gun crimes and homicides in recent years, and more than a dozen children were killed in gun violence in St. Louis in 2019.

While Democrats have called for more restrictions on gun ownership and greater flexibility for cities to impose their own gun rules, the governor, a Republican, made it clear that was not his plan.

“During my six years in the U.S. Army, 22 years in law enforcement, and as a lifetime member of the NRA, I have never, ever wavered in my support for the Second Amendment,” Parson told lawmakers gathered in the Capitol.

Parson instead called on lawmakers to provide more protection for witnesses of crime, increase mental health resources and ramp up laws against violent crime. Those proposals have a better shot at passing in a Legislature where gun rights are fiercely defended.

Parson also asked lawmakers on Wednesday to set aside $100 million in taxpayer dollars to use in case of financial emergencies.

He proposed the new savings fund as he outlined plans for next year’s state budget. State Budget Director Dan Haug told reporters that the savings fund could be bolstered if lawmakers passed legislation requiring online retailers to collect sales taxes on purchases made in Missouri.

Parson said he wanted the fund “to give our state greater flexibility and stronger finances than ever before.”

“Since the beginning of our administration, our state treasurer, our budget director, and my chief of staff have been discussing this opportunity,” Parson said. “I am proud that we can finally make this vision a reality.”

Missouri elected officials have been sounding the alarm over potentially rocky state finances in the coming years.

Missouri’s Auditor Nicole Galloway, a Democrat who is running to unseat Parson this year, released an audit in October that warned that Missouri was not saving enough to avoid having to cut spending or raise taxes if there was a recession.

On top of that, the state could take a financial hit if a proposal to expand the number of people eligible for Medicaid, a government health care program, makes it onto November’s ballot and is approved by voters.

States that expanded Medicaid in the first three years after the implementation of the ACA (2014-16) got a 100 percent federal match on spending for newly eligible people. From 2017 to 2020, the federal matching rate  gradually dropped to 90 percent. So states such as Missouri that did not expand Medicaid in the earlier years must cover 10 percent of the costs of expansion. A surge in the number of people covered would bring a surge in costs.

Parson denounced the idea of expanding Medicaid as financially irresponsible.

“So, make no mistake about it, the vague proposal they are not explaining or purposely withholding is a massive tax increase that Missourians cannot afford,” Parson said to a standing ovation from Republican lawmakers.

Democrats sat silently.

Also lurking is a potential $125 million verdict against the state after a Missouri prison guard lawsuit that alleged that they were shorted on pay. The lawsuit is pending.

Missouri already has what’s called a Budget Reserve Fund. But a constitutional constitutional amendment adopted by voters in 2000 limits Missouri’s reserve fund to 7.5 percent of net general revenue, or 10 percent if lawmakers approve a special appropriation for it, which they have not done.

Money borrowed from the fund for emergencies must be repaid within three years, making it challenging to use during revenue crises such as a recession. The fund is also routinely tapped for cash flow purposes.

Under Parson’s plan, the new rainy-day fund could hold as much as 2.5 percent of the state’s general revenues. Combined with the other reserve fund, that could bring state savings up to 10 percent of general revenues.

Galloway recommended in her October audit a rainy-day fund similar to what Parson is now proposing. Haug told reporters that Parson’s plan did not stem from her suggestion.

Galloway renewed criticism of Parson in a video she released Wednesday, blaming him for a drop in the number of children covered by state health care.

“He needs to fix the health care crisis he helped create and give children back their health care,” Galloway said of Parson.

Between January 2018 and December 2019, roughly 100,000 children lost coverage from the state’s Medicaid health insurance program.

Parson’s budget proposes about $11.7 billion for Medicaid — a roughly 5 percent increase over the current budget, although the number of people covered by the government health care program for the poor has declined by greater than 6 percent over the past year

Medicaid Director Todd Richardson said the higher costs had been driven partly by “outdated payment methodologies” that the state was trying to fix, noting that medical providers had no incentive to hold down billings for out-patient services and that some providers had been paid significantly more than others for the same services.

He attributed the decline in covered children partly to an improved economy but also to problems that occurred when switching to an automated eligibility determination system.

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