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Government, Politics & Issues

Lawmakers sidestep deadlocks, send $24 billion Missouri budget to Nixon

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 10, 2012 - The Missouri General Assembly passed the state’s budget Thursday, a day before a constitutional deadline, sending the $24.03 billion document to Gov. Jay Nixon’s desk.

The budget blueprint for the fiscal year that begins July 1, approved by the  GOP-led House and Senate, allocates $8.01 billion in general revenue. That's about $55.79 million less than what Nixon recommended earlier this year. 

The General Assembly's lower number reflects, in part, its decision not to approve two of Nixon's money-raising proposals -- changing revenue collection procedures and approving a tax amnesty plan for delinquent taxpayers. State budget director Linda Luebbering said that the governor's proposals had been expected to raise an additional $70 million.

The new budget increases the allocation for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education by about 1.7 percent compared to the 2012 budget. It provides a 4.1 percent bump for the Department of Higher Education, which includes a rejection of a Nixon proposal to cut funding for public colleges and universities. In fact, lawmakers approved a $3 million increase for seven higher education institutions across the state.

Luebbering said that, overall, the General Assembly's budget allocates $66 million more for the state's colleges and universities than the governor had proposed.  But in exchange, legislators dramatically cut money for the state's early-childhood programs and failed to approve first-round funding for the Missouri Science Innovation and Reinvestment Act, as the governor had sought.

Other trims affected the Department of Transportation, for example, which could see a 4.8 percent drop compared to the 2012 budget. The state Department of Agriculture’s budget was cut by 19.3 percent.

Both House Budget Chairman Ryan Silvey, R-Clay County, and Senate Appropriations Chairman Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, said that the state budget for FY2013 is balanced, with a small amount of money expected to be left over.

In a statement, Nixon said he would “continue to ensure that we have a balanced budget that holds the line on taxes.”

“I appreciate the efforts of the General Assembly to get a budget to me within the constitutional deadline,” the governor's statement added. “As I give this budget a very thorough review over the next several weeks, Missourians should know that we’ll continue to live within our means and hold the line on taxes, while doing everything possible to help businesses grow and create jobs.”

Disagreement over funding for blind

Nixon’s office wasn’t so effusive  with praise about the way in which both chambers retained funding for a longstanding program assisting blind Missourians.

Nixon’s spokesman released a statement stating that the changes  were "invalid" because they were an “attempt to place additional limitations on eligibility through the budget process" without changing the existing law.The General Assembly's plan would allow people who make up to 300 percent of the federal poverty level to stay on the program. Those making over 150 percent of that level would have to pay a premium, in order to continue getting assistance.

Asked about that statement on Thursday, Silvey said that appropriations bills “are also laws,”

“To say that we have not put direction in appropriations bills in the budget is to have not read the budget,” Silvey said. “We do it all over the budget. I think that the compromise is a good one. I think that the House and Senate conferees agreed – it was not a partisan issue. And I’ll be interested to see if the governor decides to follow the law or not.”

Rep. Sara Lampe – a Springfield Democrat who serves as her party’s ranking member of the House Budget Committee – said one solution would be to  attach an amendment onto another bill that would alleviate the governor’s concerns.

“That might be attempted,” Lampe said. “I have heard no mention of that on the majority side. Either [you pass legislation] or you let it go through. And then it’d be unconstitutional and then the governor would take control of that.”

The two chambers did agree on a 2 percent pay raise for state employees who make up to $70,000 a year. That was previously a source of contention in the Missouri Senate, where some conservative lawmakers wanted to forgo such a boost in tough budgetary times.

Smooth ending to contentious week

The fact that the legislature managed to finish a day before Friday’s constitutional deadline was somewhat surprising to some lawmakers, who at the beginning of the week seemed hopelessly deadlocked over relatively small issues.

Sen. Jason Crowell, R-Cape Girardeau, for instance, objected to a move to increase Southeast Missouri State’s funding by $2 million, while Sen. Jane Cunningham, R-Chesterfield, wanted to do away with funding for the Sue Shear Institute for Women in Public Life, a program operated by the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

But by Wednesday, budget negotiators agreed to increase allocations to various state universities and to drop the effort to get rid of the institute.

House Speaker Steve Tilley, R-Perryville, said the fact that the legislature was able to pass a budget, find a way to fund veterans’ homes and send a constitutional amendment to change the state’s nonpartisan court plan to the voters made this week one of the more fruitful in recent memory.

“I think by anybody’s measurement, this was one of the most successful weeks we’ve had in the House in several, several years,” Tilley said.

Schaefer said that his relationship with Senate leadership was not damaged by any disagreements he had with members of the GOP caucus – including Senate President Pro Tem Rob Mayer, R-Dexter.

“I think the takeaway from all of this is that the budget process is an extremely complicated process,” Schaefer said. “It has a lot of moving parts. And there are different opinions on what it takes to get things through. Sometimes you don’t know those things are going to turn out and you take those things as they come.”

Lampe complimented Silvey for his role in the process, but she once again said the state was going to have to take a serious look at seeking out ways to increase its revenue. Not doing so, she said, will mean continued cuts in vital services.

“Until we’re able to make the decision – and it’s just political will, that’s all that it is – are we willing to make the hard decisions to bring more revenue in?” Lampe said. “We are going to continue to cut and cut and cut, and people are going to lose services. And our roads and bridges are going to continue to crumble. And our schools are going to continue to be underfunded.”

“It doesn’t seem like anyone wants to talk about that,” she added.

Jo Mannies, Beacon political reporter, contributed some information for this article.

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