JEFFERSON CITY — A small group of state lawmakers began discussing how the state can pay back $35 million in debt to Missouri counties Tuesday.

The money is owed to counties whose jails have held state prisoners, and some lawmakers fear this could be the last chance to reimburse them.

The Subcommittee on County Prison Per Diem Reimbursement met for an organizational meeting to discuss its goals and address the state’s debt to Missouri county jails. Members hope to not only create a recommendation for repayment to give to the House Budget Committee but also to address ambiguous language within the law.

County jails can request reimbursements from the Missouri Department of Corrections, including the costs associated with transporting prisoners from local jails to state prisons, transporting extradited offenders back to Missouri and housing prisoners who are eventually sentenced to state incarceration.

The state, however, has fallen behind in payments, accruing a debt to county jails of more than $35 million and creating financial hardships and crowding issues.

“I’m cautiously optimistic that we can come to an agreement that everybody can live with,” said Rep. Don Mayhew, R-Crocker, who is one of four subcommittee members. “They might not love it, but we can all live with (it). And the No. 1 concern ... is to not keep us in a position where we’re adding to this at the tune of $8 million a year.”

The debt is not only on the subcommittee’s agenda. Gov. Mike Parson has also made a recommendation to the Budget Committee to allocate $22 million for reimbursements, a big leap from his previous $1.7 million allocation.

With other major budgetary issues on the horizon, such as possible Medicaid expansion, this could be the state’s last chance to find a long-term solution.

“If we can’t come to some reasonable solution on this, we won’t come to a reasonable solution about what happens in the future,” said Rep. David Evans, R-West Plains, the subcommittee’s chairman. “But am I gonna try to solve this problem for future time periods? You betcha.”

Supervising editor is Mark Horvit.