Last week, the House sent its version of the budget to the Senate. Shortly thereafter came the press releases and statements from House members claiming they'd succeeded in passing a "balanced" budget. But, nothing could be further from the truth.
The House's budget is flawed and not even close to being truly balanced. Neither was the Governor's proposal and, unfortunately, in all likelihood neither will the Senate's. Instead of making the decision to craft a fiscally sound budget for our state, the House and governor and probably Senate too, chose and will choose to throw together a spending plan based on gimmick assumptions and questionable one-time funds, resulting in a budget that's far from being balanced.
Part of the problem stems from using proposed revenue-increasing legislation that may or may not pass this year to prop up the budget revenue numbers. It's been done in years past, and it's being done again this year. The House and governor are accounting more than $70 million to come from a "tax amnesty" program and enhanced tax collection methods that have yet to be approved by the General Assembly. In my opinion, counting on these changes before passage is just gimmick accounting and wrong.
Additionally, we should all have concerns with more than the $40 million Missouri will supposedly receive as a result of a national settlement over illegal foreclosures. Governor Nixon announced last month his desire to allot $40 million of this settlement to General Revenue to reduce his proposed cuts to higher education. The House went ahead and included the funds into their version of the budget when the only information we've received about this money is a press release from the State Attorney General's office. And not even Attorney General Koster knows when Missouri will receive this money. We should not appropriate according to press releases. Moreover, why should we take money intended to make whole Missourians who were illegally foreclosed upon and give it to higher education? What about the people who lost their homes and shouldn't have?
This week in the Senate, we'll begin our discussion of the state's FY'13 budget. I believe it is critical we start having an open and honest conversation about how our state is going to move forward. If we continue upon our present course of recklessly spending taxpayer dollars and supporting bloated, flawed programs, we're going to face even larger budgetary issues in the future.
There are three areas I believe we need to focus our attention upon. The first is governmental retirement systems--pensions. If you compare the public sector to the private sector, you'll see the amount of money the state spends on retirement benefits is astronomically higher and unsustainable.
The second area we need to examine is our state's criminal code. The state of Missouri spends approximately $20,000 a year to house a state prisoner. Criminals should be punished; however I think it is reckless to spend $20,000 to keep people in jail for victimless, nonviolent crimes. In my opinion, these individuals could be better handled with civil penalties and various probationary measures like house arrest and ankle monitoring.
Finally, we have to reform our state's tax credit system. Missouri will spend almost $700 million this year on tax credits, another double digit increase. Missouri is and has been #1 in the country for Historic Preservation tax credits, and #2 in Low-Income Housing tax credits. We spend over $250 million a year on these two programs alone. Yet, our state is 45th in the country for higher education per capita funding, and ranks in the low 30s for K-12 education funding. We must reform tax credits. If we go with the governor and House's budget plan, we're going to cut healthcare access for blind people so we can maintain tax credits that go to a few very wealthy, well-connected developers.
The decisions we make today prepare us for the future, but too often the politicians in Jefferson City are focused on their next election instead of working to make tomorrow better than today. We, as a state, have to decide what our priorities are. Do we value providing our children access to a world class education, or do we care more about lining the pockets of wealthy campaign contributing tax credit takers? If our current budget is any indication, the answer is unfortunately pretty clear--tax credit takers are valued over education. Tax credit allocation is growing by double digits while the K-12 formula is under funded by over $400 million and higher education is allocated fantasy revenue.
As always, I appreciate hearing your comments, opinions, and concerns. Please feel free to contact me in Jefferson City at (573) 751-2459. You may write to me at Jason Crowell; Missouri Senate; State Capitol; Jefferson City, MO 65101, or email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org or visit me on the web at http://www.senate.mo.gov/crowell.