Nixon, GOP clash over Medicaid, driver's licenses

JORDAN SHAPIRO,Associated Press

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon began his second term with ambitions to expand Medicaid coverage, cap campaign contributions and lengthen the school year. But those priorities ran into a wall of opposition from the largest Republican legislative majority since the Civil War.

When lawmakers left town on Friday they had soundly defeated Nixon's plan to expand Medicaid coverage to 260,000 adults by using almost $900 million from the federal government. Nixon had dubbed the expansion as the "smart" and "right thing to do."

But Republicans rejected Nixon's plans from the start and argued the state could not afford the expansion if the federal government reneged on its promise to fund 100 percent of the cost for the first three years and 90 percent after 2022.

"Hundreds of thousands of working Missourians will needlessly go without health coverage, and the dollars that Missouri taxpayers sent to Washington will be spent in other states instead," Nixon said after the Legislature adjourned Friday.

House leaders wanted to use the Medicaid debate as an opportunity to instill "market-based" changes to the existing program while expanding coverage to fewer adults than envisioned under President Barack Obama's health care law. But those efforts stalled after the Senate showed little interest in tackling the issue this year.

"Expanding Medicaid to the tune of putting a billion new dollars into a system that I think is really troubled was never on our agenda. I feel that the governor dragged us into that agenda after the election on something he did not run on," said House Speaker Tim Jones, R-Eureka.

Nixon announced his support for Medicaid expansion on Nov. 29 and began a public campaign trying to pressure Republicans into backing his plan. He held 32 press conferences across the state and met with House and Senate Republicans behind closed doors.

But during the governor's final push for Medicaid expansion, Republicans diverted their attention to a full-scale investigation into his administration over new drivers' license procedures that required applicants' personal documents to be scanned into a state computer system.

Lawmakers were concerned the scanned documents, including birth certificates and concealed weapons permits, could be shared with the federal government. Although administration officials denied that the scanned copies would be shared, Republicans learned through their investigation that a list of Missouri gun-permit holders had twice been compiled for the Missouri State Highway Patrol to be shared with a federal agent in the Social Security Administration.

The situation came to a head during Nixon's final public Medicaid expansion rally on April 16 inside the Capitol rotunda. That morning he announced the Revenue Department would no longer scan gun permits but would continue scanning other documents. After the event, he expressed frustration that Republicans were only focusing on the licensing procedures and called it "a major kerfuffle" intended by Republicans to "divert the attention of the public."

Despite passing on Medicaid proposals, Republican leaders and Nixon were able to find some common ground this year. Replenishing an insolvent fund for injured workers was a shared priority, and lawmakers sent the governor a bill that would allow the state to start settling a backlog of more than 30,000 pending claims against the disability fund. Nixon has also already signed into law measures reinstating expired tax credits on certain charitable donations and creating new tax breaks aimed at attracting amateur sporting events.

But other Nixon priorities were dead on arrival in the Legislature. The governor asked lawmakers in January to reinstate limits on how much individuals and businesses can contribute to political campaigns. The limits were removed by the Republican-controlled Legislature in 2008, and Republicans weren't eager to consider the caps again.

The House didn't conduct a hearing on the proposal. The limits were discussed briefly on the Senate floor after being pushed by Democrats, but Republicans abruptly ended the debate. Nixon promised to take the issue to the voters if the Legislature didn't act this year.

"Now that the Legislature has failed to move forward, I'll be interacting with folks who are interested in moving forward in those areas and lend my council and support where I think it can be impactful," he said.

The governor's plan to lengthen the school year by six days also was never considered by Republican lawmakers. He also pushed to scale back existing tax breaks for historic buildings and low-income housing, but that effort died on the last day of session.

Nixon praised the Legislature for going along with some of his budget priorities, including increases to K-12 and higher education funding. He also was successful in securing additional funding for mental health programs, domestic violence shelters and export initiatives.