House budget strategy garners mixed reactions

Sunday, March 16, 2003

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- If House Republicans and their critics agree on one thing, it's that the majority party's method of writing the state budget is unique.

The chamber's GOP leaders say they were forced to take an innovative approach after the traditional method was thwarted by a lack of cooperation from Democratic executive branch department officials.

Instead of passing a detailed budget, Republican leaders just appropriated lump sums to the various departments at roughly 2001 levels, leaving it to the departments to make cuts necessary to work within an $18.5 billion budget.

Some say House Republicans, after years of claiming they could do a better job, are passing the buck after just two months in charge.

"I'm surprised as much as anyone else that they seemingly quit on the process," said state Rep. Wes Wagner, D-DeSoto.

'Can't operate like that'

But state Rep. Kevin Engler, R-Farmington, said a desperate situation calls for extraordinary action and that Republicans were tired of being lambasted for taking the necessary, if unpopular, steps to bring spending in line with revenue.

"Every time we've made a suggested cut, we've heard 'You can't do that; you're immoral,'" Engler said. "We can't operate like that."

The probable result of the budget battle for Missourians is that many government programs and services will be scaled back or eliminated. Which specific areas will be targeted remains an open question.

Under the Missouri Constitution, the governor presents his proposed budget to the legislature in January. The bills that make up the budget first go to the House and then to the Senate, with a completed spending plan returned to the governor by the end of the first full week of May.

The constitution requires that spending bills "distinctly specify the amount and purpose of the appropriation." Traditionally, appropriations bills have specifically listed how much money would be set aside for each particular agency and program.

After making $300 million in cuts from current spending levels, Gov. Bob Holden's $19.2 billion budget proposal required $700 million in new revenue to achieve balance. Per his constitutional obligation, he suggested various tax and fee increases and other actions to cover state spending in fiscal year 2004, which begins July 1.

Those proposals, however, are going nowhere. Many lawmakers doubt voters, who would have to approve any significant increases, are in the mood for more taxes.

As a result, House Republicans chose to achieve balance through cuts. After weeks of working through that process in the traditional manner, Republicans said they weren't getting sufficient help from department heads in identifying priorities. The administration's position has been that Holden had already cut everything that could be without affecting vital services and that everything remaining in his proposal was a priority.

Countering strategy

The strategy was to pressure Republicans to go along with Holden's tax proposals by forcing them to bear the responsibility for eliminating programs.

To counter that strategy and force the administration to work within existing revenue, GOP leaders decided to appropriate lump sums to departments.

"If we're not able to get that kind of input on the front end, they're going to have to provide it on the back end," said House Speaker Catherine Hanaway, R-Warson Woods.

Some observers have called the plan a bold political stroke because it would allow the GOP, out of power in the House since 1954, to take credit for reducing state spending while blaming the administration for specific cuts.

Predictably, Holden blasted the plan, saying it would cost local school districts $300 million and higher education, already hit hard in recent years, another $82 million. He has threatened to veto spending bills that include massive cuts.

The full House is expected to send the budget bills to the Senate this week. Even though the GOP also controls the upper chamber, key leaders such as Senate Appropriations Committee chairman John Russell, R-Lebanon, have little enthusiasm for the House plan.

'A major giveaway'

Senate President Pro Tem Peter Kinder, R-Cape Girardeau, said he is inclined to defer to Russell on the matter with the appropriations committee, indicating it will substitute the broad plan with a standard, detailed budget.

If he were a department head, Kinder said, he might like the House proposal because it would allow him to set his agency's priorities free of legislative meddling. As a lawmaker, however, he is uncertain of the wisdom of giving unelected bureaucrats that much latitude.

"It is a major giveaway of legislative power and discretion," Kinder said.

Hanaway said she doesn't expect the Senate will march in lock step with the lower chamber on this issue.

"I'm sure their approach will not mirror ours because the Senate always does things differently," Hanaway said.

Differences between the two chambers will have to be worked out before the budget can be returned to the governor. If the House position is that the budget must be balanced through cuts rather than tax increases, then so be it, said state Rep. Denny Merideth, D-Caruthersville. However, he said the chamber is wrong to abdicate its responsibilities.

Each of the 163 members of the House have the obligation to identify the priorities of his or her constituents and then work with the other members to fund those priorities through the give and take of the legislative process, said Merideth, who sits on the House Budget Committee. By appropriating lump sums to departments, he said, the people are losing their voice.

"The more we do that without the people's input, the more we erode the basic democratic structure," Merideth said. "It is extremely disappointing."

mpowers@semissourian.com

(573) 635-4608

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