Missouri's budget- Closing the gap

Wednesday, May 14, 2003

With just three days left in this year's regular session of the Missouri Legislature, it appears likely enough revenue will be found to pay for the budget of nearly $19 billion approved last week.

Republican leaders in the House and Senate are working this week on finding an estimated $200 million of new revenue to fund the budget. However, the state's budget director says the gap between the legislature-approved budget and anticipated revenue for the fiscal year that begins July 1 could be as high as $500 million.

Threat of veto:a political club

Democratic legislators who support Gov. Bob Holden's proposed tax increases -- which would fund not only the gap, but additional state spending -- want the governor to veto parts, if not all, of the budget. If Holden vetoes any of the budget, the legislature would have to meet in special session to work out a spending plan in time to pay the state's bills and payroll starting July 1.

While the threat of budget vetoes is a political club some Democrats would like to use to beat Republican legislators into submission, the fact is that this legislative session -- dominated by Republicans for the first time in half a century -- has done a masterful job of holding the line on state spending while protecting Missouri's taxpayers.

One indication of how good a job the legislature has done on the budget comes in remarks made by state Sen. Wayne Goode, a Normandy Democrat who has served 40 years in the legislature and has played key budget roles both as a representative and a senator.

A pragmatic nod to reality

Goode would have preferred to see the legislature at least give serious consideration to Holden's proposals, made in his State of the State address at the start of the session, to raise taxes on tobacco products, casinos and wealthier Missourians. But, in a pragmatic nod to the reality that Republicans are firmly in control of both legislative chambers, Goode worked diligently with the GOP leadership instead of crossing swords, as many of his Democratic colleagues continue to do, over party ideology.

Indeed, Goode's experience in matters of state budgets was invaluable in hammering out the budget now under consideration by a conference committee.

The biggest challenge facing legislators on the conference committee is bringing House members up to speed on line-item spending plans put in place by the Senate. Early in the session, when it appeared spending would be limited pretty much to existing revenue sources, state departments led by Holden's appointees refused to cooperate with representatives on any efforts to make prudent cuts. As a result, the House adopted a lump-sum appropriations model that would have left it up to bureaucrats to make final decisions on how to spend money approved for their agencies. As a result, the line-item plan worked out in the Senate is unfamiliar to many House members.

Veto, special session: a mistake

It would be a mistake for the governor to veto any of the budget that will reach his desk sometime next week. It would be a mistake to incur the expense of a special session basically aimed at forcing the legislature to do something it has no intention of doing. It would be a mistake to raise taxes enough to pay for everything the governor wants in the budget.

And consider this: The $19 billion spending plan being negotiated by House-Senate conferees is a scant 1.7 percent ($330 million) less than Holden proposed at the start of the session. That's an outstanding effort, given the current economic realities. The governor would be better off working with legislators to close the revenue gap in the budget being considered this week than making threats of veto and a special session.

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