Senate panel to decide on budget this week

Monday, April 14, 2003

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- What do you do when your budget is $700 million out of balance?

Do you cut spending so that you don't need the money? Or do you ask for more money so that you can maintain your operations?

That is the quandary facing the Missouri Legislature as it tries to fix the state's budget shortfall.

In frustration, the Republican-led House passed a budget for the upcoming fiscal year without specifying how departments are to spend their shares. Republicans said they had no choice because department directors in Democratic Gov. Bob Holden's administration refused their request to recommend how their budgets should be cut.

Now the budget is before the Senate Appropriations Committee, which has asked agency chiefs to determine how they would cope with a cut of 13 percent to 15 percent.

The Department of Mental Health responded that if it lost $41 million, hundreds of patients would lose some or all of their medication, fewer hospital beds would be available and hundreds of staff positions would be eliminated.

Moreover, the department said, about 8,500 people would be denied substance abuse treatment and the Division of Mental Retardation would have to drop services for 5,800 people.

"We've tried very hard to find things other than affecting services," Mental Health director Dorn Schuffman told the Senate committee. "It's not that it's the best thing to do. It's that this is where we are."

Some members of the Republican-led committee were not pleased with the scenario Schuffman presented.

"They are extremely deep, significant cuts that are going to hurt a great deal," said Sen. Wayne Goode, D-St. Louis, warning colleagues that "you're going to see the same thing in health and social services" as well. Schuffman's staff is revising its response.

The Senate committee also queried the Office of Administration, which said it might drop the contract for security patrols at the Capitol and five other state buildings. Several committee members agreed with that proposal, saying Jefferson City was not a dangerous place and that other states do without such measures.

Money-saving ideas

Other money-saving ideas have included scrapping the state's February 2004 presidential primary and making a one-third cut in the state lottery's advertising budget, to about $4 million.

More such proposals will be aired this week as the Senate committee hears from the departments of prisons, education, health and social services. The committee hopes to finish its work and send a budget to the full Senate by the end of the week.

One thorny issue is how to write the budget itself. The favored approach involves a two-line entry for each appropriation -- one at a bare-bones level and the other if a tax increase is approved.

Already, several committee members, including at least two Republicans, have spoken about the need to seek voter approval of a tax increase.

The committee's chairman, veteran Sen. John Russell of Lebanon, has openly advocated a $300 million tax increase.

And freshman Sen. Charlie Shields, who generally opposed tax increases during his 10 years in the House, said it only makes sense in the current circumstances to give voters the option.

"Those are really nasty, mean cuts," said Shields, R-St. Joseph. "I don't think you can get to balance this budget without being very, very concerned about the cuts that we're going to make."

It's uncertain if a tax proposal could overcome strong objections from some senators, however -- and even if it did, the House stands between any tax increase and a statewide vote. House Speaker Catherine Hanaway opposes the idea, and so do many other House Republicans.

"Almost any tax increase that comes before the House would be defeated," said Hanaway, R-Warson Woods.


Appropriations bills are HBs1-13.

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