Education still highest priority

Sunday, July 13, 2003

By Carl L. Bearden

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Protecting elementary and secondary education is our state's highest priority. The Missouri Constitution ensures that funding education is the primary responsibility of Missouri government.

Recognizing this obligation, the legislature sent to Gov. Bob Holden funding bills for elementary and secondary education that appropriate the same amount of money in fiscal year 2004 as what was received in fiscal year 2003 after the governor's $98 million in withholdings during fiscal year 2003 are considered.

Previously, the governor indicated education funding was his highest priority and withholding these funds would be the option of last resort. In a third attempt to force the legislature into supporting the largest tax increase in state history this year, he chose to withhold $198 million from elementary and secondary education on the second day of the new 2004 fiscal year. This contradiction defies logic and robs our children of the opportunity to succeed.

The governor has suggested the budget is out of balance because it relied on his projections from December rather than those from May. The adopted budget followed the standard legislative practice of using December estimates and reflects adjustments in various fund balances and withholdings that had been made by the governor. These adjustments followed the traditional approach to accounting for a changing revenue picture that was used even under Democratic Party control.

The governor's contention that no allowance was made for fiscal changes is incorrect at best and political rhetoric at worst.

Between April 21 and June 18, the Holden administration provided the legislature with at least 12 different estimated shortfalls for the 2004 budget to divert attention from problems in the revenue-estimating process. If one were to use the governor's own projections, he has overestimated revenue by $1.1 billion since being sworn in.

Further evidence to this point is that the governor's projections for the fiscal year 2003 budget shortfall made approximately 45 days before the end of the fiscal year were miserably inaccurate.

The Missouri Constitution provides the governor -- and only the governor -- the power to withhold funds from state agencies and exercise the line-item veto. However, the constitution also indicates that the governor shall not reduce appropriations for free public schools. Whether this prohibition extends to withholding funds from elementary and secondary education has not yet been directly challenged in court.

Despite rhetoric to the contrary, the adopted budget ensures that elementary and secondary education funding is our state's highest priority. Rather than using Missouri children as pawns in a political chess match, the governor should listen to the will of the people and exercise fiscal restraint.

State Rep. Carl Bearden of St. Charles, Mo., is the chairman of the Budget Committee in the Missouri House of Representatives.

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