It's that lovely time of year when it becomes imperative that the state legislature finish wrangling over the budget so everyone can get the hell out of Jeff City and go home for the summer. And so last week, the House approved a $24 billion spending plan, now on its way to the Senate.
Facing a $500 million shortfall and a demand from Governor Jay Nixon that $68 million be cut from the higher education budget, the legislators decided to ax the $28 million Supplemental Aid to the Blind program.
The program is meant to pay for medical care for approximately 2,800 blind people whose annual income is more than $9,495, the cutoff for Medicaid, but have less than $20,000 in assets (excluding their houses) and do not have sighted spouses who work.
It must be noted that there are no equivalent programs for people with other types of disabilities -- not deaf people, not people who can't walk, not the mentally-impaired -- who may also have trouble finding work, let alone work that can cover their living expenses and medical bills
The cut has the full support of House Republicans, including speaker Steve Tilley, who happens to be a doctor of optometry. (Tilley is also the man responsible for including the bust of Rush Limbaugh in the Hall of Famous Missourians under the capitol dome.)
"I deal with visually impaired people every day, and I have some concerns," Tilley told the Kansas City Star. "But at the end of the day, I don't necessarily think they should be treated significantly differently than the other people who have another disability."
Rep. Ryan Silvey (R-Kansas City), chair of the budget committee, believes that putting the money into education will have a greater benefit to the state as a whole. "If you continue to cut away and cut away and cut away at higher education, before long you start cutting into your educated workforce," he said. "If you don't have an educated workforce, how are you ever going to dig out of a depressed economy?"
Naturally, advocates for the blind disagree. (So does Governor Nixon, since he is a Democrat, even though it could be argued that his budget recommendations put the budget committee in this fix in the first place.)
Christopher Gray, executive director of the Missouri Council of the Blind, argues that cutting the program will cost the state -- and the good citizens of Missouri -- more money in the long run. The unemployment rate among the blind is 70 percent and they are ineligible for private insurance since blindness is considered a pre-existing condition. Somebody will have to pay their medical bills, right?
"The costs will come when blind people who have no more medical benefit are forced to go to emergency rooms for treatment or to move into nursing homes when their support system is pulled out from under them," he told the Star.
Meanwhile, our friends at the Post-Dispatch point out that the current budget provides for a two percent raise for all state employees who earn less than $70,000.
So, um, how about that cigarette tax?