Budget consensus sought for state

Thursday, October 2, 2003

Gov. Bob Holden and legislative leaders are trying to forge a consensus on the state's projected revenue and budget shortfall for next year.

The Democratic governor met for two hours Wednesday behind closed doors with top Republican and key Democratic lawmakers. All emerged reporting progress, though few specifics.

The meeting itself was perhaps the most significant occurrence, because Holden and Republican House leaders clashed frequently during this year's legislative session over how much money was needed for the budget, how to raise it and how to spend it.

Typically, representatives from the governor's budget office, House and Senate meet in December with a University of Missouri economist to develop the revenue projections that serve as the basis for the next fiscal year's budget.

But new House Budget Committee chairman Carl Bearden, R-St. Charles, refused to officially sign off on the estimate developed during last year's meetings. Although the House ultimately used the projection when crafting the budget, the lack of an official "consensus revenue estimate" resulted in some political sparring.

Bearden made no pledge to agree on a revenue estimate this time. But "I'm committed to working toward a consensus as best I can," he said after the meeting.

He said the House plans to hire an economist to make sure the revenue projections are considering all possible factors. Bearden previously has expressed concerns that the annual forecast has been overly optimistic. The Senate and the governor's budget office already have full-time economists.

During Wednesday's meeting, state officials heard presentations from Holden's budget director Linda Luebbering and from Jim Moody, a former budget director under Republican Gov. John Ashcroft who has been presenting a state fiscal analysis to groups around the state.

Budget shortfall

Although their numbers differ slightly, both Luebbering and Moody say Missouri is facing a roughly $1 billion shortfall if the state intends for its fiscal 2005 budget to keep pace with the current budget that runs through June 30.

Much of the gap is due to the use of one-time funding sources in the current budget. But their figures also are based on the assumption that the current budget appropriated more money than available to spend.

Bearden, who has taken issue with the latter assertion, said he doubted next year's shortfall was as much as $1 billion. But he added, "the lines of communication were excellent" during what he described as "probably one of the best meetings I've had with the governor's office."

Holden, who invited lawmakers to his office, initially planned to have a public meeting but decided to close it at lawmakers' suggestion.

House Speaker Catherine Hanaway, R-Warson Woods, said the closed meeting helped avoid "grandstanding" by all sides.

"I think we had good and productive talks, and I think we will keep talking," she said.

Senate President Pro Tem Peter Kinder, R-Cape Girardeau, described the meeting as "candid and fruitful and nothing definitive, but we had a very good meeting."

Senate Appropriations Committee chairman John Russell, R-Lebanon, and committee member Wayne Goode, D-St. Louis, also attended the meeting.

Holden said in a statement that he also was "very pleased with the dialogue."

"The first step that must take place to address the fiscal year 2005 budget is a recognition and agreement on the scope of Missouri's budget problem," Holden said. "I think we took a positive step in moving towards that goal."

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