House Democrats advance tobacco settlement spending plan
JEFFERSON CITY -- House Democrats muscled through a tobacco settlement spending plan Thursday after they abruptly cut off debate to block Republican plans to attach anti-abortion provisions and make other changes.
Preliminary approval of the spending plan, which would go to a public vote this year, passed 88-69 on a vote that closely followed party lines. A chorus of boos from outraged Republicans greeted the announcement that debate would be halted.
Democratic floor leader Wayne Crump of Potosi said later that Republicans had had plenty of input into the plan over the past 15 months. They had a chance to offer amendments during the nearly four hours of drawn-out debate Wednesday, he said.
Crump said the bill was too important to let it become bogged down in fighting over tangential issues. He said he had learned Wednesday night that GOP lawmakers planned to offer amendments to finance anti-abortion programs and to abolish the state salary commission.
"I'm not going to play that game," Crump said. "You put pro-life amendments into this bill, and the vote becomes a pro-life referendum instead of how to use the tobacco money."
Missouri is expected to receive $6.7 billion over the next 25 years. The money is part of $206 billion that cigarette makers agreed to pay 46 states. The agreement settled lawsuits that had sought to recover the Medicaid program's cost of treating tobacco-related illnesses.
GOP floor leader Delbert Scott of Lowry City acknowledged that some Republicans hoped to spend 2 percent of the money on programs that encourage women to maintain their pregnancies and put their babies up for adoption. That would give such groups about $4 million a year.
But Scott said Republicans had gotten the idea from a Democratic colleague.
"If you can make the case to spend money on child development, then that opens up the opportunity to give 2 percent to pro-life causes," he said.
Republicans, Scott said, also had planned to offer amendments to use more money for treating tobacco-related illnesses, to put the vote on the August ballot and to give voters a choice on how to handle the tobacco windfall.
Scott blamed House Speaker Steve Gaw of Moberly for cutting off debate.
"It's a sad state of affairs when Steve Gaw -- a guy who wants to be secretary of state and oversee free and fair elections -- returns to the style of (former speaker) Bob Griffin and shuts down debate on the biggest spending bill in Missouri history," Scott said.
Griffin ran the House with near total control for 15 years until he resigned in 1996.
Crump, however, said the debate had grown counterproductive. Republicans, who had supported the plan until this month, had begun to attack the bill instead of offering constructive suggestions, he said.
The spending plan would ask voters to exclude $6.7 billion from the state's revenue limit.
If the plan is adopted, the money would be spent like this:
The first $175 million would be placed into a permanent endowment that would be left untouched until it grew to $1 billion. At that point, earnings could be spent along with other tobacco receipts.
The second $175 million would be put into a fund to subsidize drug and other health-care costs for elderly persons with low incomes.
The remaining payments, plus the earnings on the endowment, would be spent on health care programs, health sciences research, anti-smoking programs and early childhood programs.
The bill puts the proposal on the November ballot, unless the governor calls for an earlier vote. It still faces final passage in the House before it goes to the Senate.
Republicans have been concerned that if voters reject the plan, the multi-part ballot question would leave the money in limbo.
Scott said Republicans wanted to add language requiring a "no" vote to mean the money would be included under the state's revenue limit. That could require some, or even all, of each year's tobacco receipts to be refunded to taxpayers.
The Senate has been working on an alternate spending plan, but that effort has bogged down amid efforts to earmark part of the money for property tax relief and other purposes. That made the House version all the more important, Crump said.
"The Senate bill is completely stalled because of all the amendments," Crump said. "I have to decide what are the important issues and keep them moving. We can't become gridlocked like the Senate. The elderly and children have a big stake in this bill, and I couldn't see an end to this debate."