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Government, Politics & Issues

Missouri lawmakers reach budget breakthrough as deadline nears

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 9, 2012 - After days of uncertainty, Missouri legislators appeared Wednesday to break through a deadlock that threatened to hold up the state’s budget past a constitutional deadline.

That included effectively abandoning a bid to defund the Sue Shear Institute for Public Life, an entity that had angered some Republicans in the General Assembly.

GOP lawmakers – such as Sen. Jane Cunningham, R-Chesterfield – have for years been trying to remove funding for the institute located on the University of Missouri-St. Louis’ campus. Cunningham and others argue that the institute is effectively a training ground for Democratic campaign workers, while its supporters say that it provides important insight for women interested in politics.

Language had been put forth in two bills to accomplish Cunningham’s goal. One line was encased in budget legislation funding higher education that stated “no funds appropriated under this section shall be distributed to or in any way support any organization that engages in political activity; including but not limited to, the Sue Shear Institute or its successor entity.”

Another line was placed into legislation providing a new manner of funding veterans’ homes, which even Cunningham said went too far.

Ultimately the Missouri Senate removed the Sue Shear wording from the veterans’ bill. And later in the day, a conference committee going over the state budget removed the phrase “including but not limited to, the Sue Shear Institute or its successor entity.”

The conference committee kept in place, however, the line stipulating that “no funds appropriated under this section shall be distributed to or in any way support any organization that engages in political activity.”

“The language that’s in the budget essentially reflects what’s in current law, which is that no money going to higher education should be going to political activity,” said Senate Appropriations Chairman Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia. “And whether it’s the Sue Shear Institute or something else, if it’s public money that’s being used through higher education to fund political activity, then it already was basically against the law anyway.”

Asked whether the developments Wednesday mean that it’s effectively the status quo for the institute, Schaefer said, “I guess it depends on whether you believe they’re doing political activity.”

“I would say that they should be very cautious if they are doing political activity,” he said, adding that he didn’t know whether the institute was currently doing that.

The institute gets $250,000 annually from the university.

Senate President Pro Tem Rob Mayer, R-Dexter, said it became increasingly difficult to put in legislative language that achieved Cunningham’s goal. So instead, he said, Cunningham focused on verbiage that would prohibit a “quality rating system” for early childhood education institutions.

In an interview, Cunningham agreed with Mayer that the rating system restrictions were more of a legislative priority. She said prohibiting such a practice “was a more substantive, heavy legislative activity that needed to be done.”

But she added that the controversy could shine a brighter light on the institute.

“I think after all this talk about it especially after this session – even though the talk has been going on for many years – I think they are really on notice,” she said. “And frankly, they’ve subjected the entire university to be on notice for any kind of political activity going on in that university.”

Budget negotiators also came up with an agreement regarding funding for a program assisting blind Missourians, which had stoked controversy earlier in the session. In addition to limiting the program to people who make 300 percent of the federal poverty level, anyone who makes 150 percent of the poverty level would have to pay a premium to remain on the program.

But Sam Murphey, a spokesman for Gov. Jay Nixon, said that approach may not be workable.

“We are pleased that the conference committee has restored full funding authority for this vital lifeline for blind Missourians," Murphey said in a statement, "but the attempt to place additional limitations on eligibility through the budget process does not change existing law – and is invalid. We will ensure that this program continues to serve all 2,800 needy, blind Missourians who depend on it.”

Deadlock broken?

The institute was one of several roadblocks that nearly derailed the budgetary process, which needs to be finished by Friday.

At issue was a bill altering how veterans’ homes are funded, which House Budget Chairman Ryan Silvey said needed to be passed before any vote was taken on the overall budget.

“No version [of the budget] fully funds the veterans’ homes without some legislation,” said Silvey, R-Clay County. “I don’t think it would be responsible for us to close the conference committee assuming that we’re going to pass a bill and not put enough money into veterans’ homes.”

Ultimately, legislators agreed to legislation that would shift casino money that was going to early childhood education to a fund that could be appropriated to veterans' homes. Money from the master tobacco settlement would then go toward early childhood education.

“Unfortunately the current economic environment left Missouri with large budget shortfalls causing our veterans to shoulder the brunt of the cuts made to the budget,” said Sen. Brian Munzlinger, R-Williamstown, in a statement. “Passage of this bill protects our veterans’ homes from running out of money and guarantees our veterans receive the care and treatment they need.”

But unrelated issues kept that bill from passing. Besides the controversy over funding for the institute, another roadblock was the insertion of $2 million in additional funding for Southeast Missouri State University.

Published reports noted that House Speaker Steve Tilley, R-Perryville, wanted the increase in funding to address what he saw as inequities in higher education funding. But Sen. Jason Crowell, R-Cape Giradeau, contended that the term-limited House Speaker was pushing for the money so he could lobby for the university, a charge Tilley denied.

Ultimately, budget negotiators chose to increase funding to a number of universities besides SEMO. While some legislators from Springfield were perturbed that Missouri State University didn’t receive an increase, it was enough for the veterans’ bill to pass and the budget process to move forward.

In any case, Silvey and Schaefer said they were surprised how the budget nearly got tripped up by seemingly small amounts of money.

“I think what’s happened is some senators have tied other issues to the passage of [the veterans’ bill] knowing that would be pretty good leverage in negotiation,” Silvey said.

“Because we all believe that we have to pass this bill. That’s been a frustration in the House because you’re tying unrelated things to the passage of a veterans’ bill, which then supports the funding in the budget. I wish we would decouple all these ancillary issues and just deal with other issues.”

Added Schaefer: “I think when you deal with a budget in a way that the budget chairman and I do, even before the session begins we’re already working on the budget. And we’re looking at all of the strings tied together and how that fits together. And when you get late in the process, it’s inevitable that somebody wants to pull a string here or there and you have to deal with that.”

“But," he added, "I think their perspective on the budget is a little different than someone’s who’s been working on it for months and has a more universal picture of the budget.”

House Majority Leader Tim Jones, R-Eureka, said on the House floor that he expected the legislature would finish up with the budget Thursday. Silvey added that had the legislature not have met that deadline, it was likely that Nixon would have called the legislature into special session to finish work on the budget.

Heat on Wolfe?

During the conference committee, Silvey noted that he’d received “heat” from House members upset over comments University of Missouri system President Tim Wolfe made about defunding the Sue Shear Institute. 

Wolfe told the Columbia Daily Tribune earlier this week that efforts to defund the institute were a “fricking embarrassment.” He added that “having the political leadership in Jefferson City decide what we teach on our campuses goes against our mission."

Silvey said he too disagreed with language that had been added to the veterans’ bill. In fact, earlier in the day he told a reporter that the verbiage was “ridiculous.” Mayer called the language on the veterans' bill "horrendous."

And out of deference to Schaefer – whose district includes the University of Missouri-Columbia – Silvey said he wouldn’t support removing any funds for the system because of that comment.

But Silvey added that lawmakers didn't appreciate being “publicly berated” by a university president when they were trying hard to restore funding for higher education.

“I understand that this is his first few months on the job, but I think he needs to realize that this is not Boston,” said Silvey in a discussion with a UM system lobbyist, referring to Wolfe's former residence in Massachusetts. “And in Missouri, you cannot make those kind of statements and expect them to just go unnoticed.”

“If he has problems with the legislature, he needs to talk to the legislature,” Silvey added.

Sen. Will Kraus, R-Lee’s Summit, added “I believe we have a right as appropriators to look at these tax dollars and see how we’re appropriating them.”

“It’s disappointing to see the president make those comments, he added.

But Sen. Kiki Curls, D-Kansas City, called the language placed into the veterans’ homes bill “an embarrassment.” Although she said that perhaps Wolfe shouldn’t have made the comments to the press, she added she was glad that he was not getting penalized for making the comments.

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