Better budgeting

Sunday, November 2, 2003

Five years ago, preparing a budget for most taxing entities was a fairly simple process of deciding how to spend more money than the year before. The robust economy pretty much guaranteed that taxpayers would be paying bigger tax bills. Indeed, spending in many areas of government more than doubled during the good times.

When the economy was strong, preparing the Missouri budget was a fairly low-key process. The heads of state departments and agencies would submit a wish list. The state budget director and the governor's staff would craft a budget proposal based on those requests. The governor's budget would be submitted to the legislature at the start of the session in January. Little else would be done until near the end of the session, when the appropriation bills would be completed -- sometimes with a bit of pushing and shoving as money was moved around.

That's all changed. With an anticipated gap in the next state budget of nearly $1 billion, the old way doesn't work any more. As a result, the budget process now begins months in advance of the next legislative session. That may be an unanticipated benefit of the budget crunch.

It's not just legislators wrestling with the state budget who are getting an early start. Local taxing units are approaching the budget process with considerably more thought, attention and planning than ever before.

Look at all the budget-related activity going on in recent weeks.

Southeast Missouri State University is involved in a major review of operations and academic programs in an effort to cut expenses.

The Cape Girardeau School District has a 100-member task force looking at ways to make major spending cuts.

Voters in the Jackson School District will decide Tuesday on eliminating a tax rollback that would give the district more local and state funding without increasing the overall tax levy.

A 14-member Joint Interim Committee on Education met last week with school administrators in Southeast Missouri to find ways to improve the equity and adequacy of the state's complex school-funding formula.

The Missouri National Guard announced it is closing six armories -- three in Southeast Missouri -- and expects to save thousands of dollars in operating costs.

All of this activity is an indication that those responsible for spending tax dollars have developed a healthy awareness that it's never too early to start planning how to spend a limited supply of tax dollars.

Some taxpayers also have been observing that this kind of hard-nosed scrutiny would serve local, state and federal taxing entities well, regardless of how the economy is doing.

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