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Editorial: Budget realities

Wednesday, December 3, 2003

As Missouri's budget has grown more desperate in recent years, it has become commonplace to scrutinize how existing revenue is being used. There are two major considerations when spending $19 billion dollars:

The first is whether or not Missouri really needs to spend so much money to provide state programs. The growth in state spending during the good years of the 1990s far outpaced virtually all other indicators of economic expansion. This meant the economic downturn a couple of years ago presented a double whammy: On the one hand, many state programs anticipated the gravy train wouldn't stop. On the other hand, many new costly state programs were suddenly considered to be essential.

The other major consideration is whether or not the funding received by the state, even in a sour economy, is being utilized in ways that best benefit the residents of Missouri.

It is under this microscope that revenue from highway user fees -- fuel taxes, license fees and vehicle sales taxes -- has received so much attention in recent months.

Of the $1.2 billion collected from these user fees, the Missouri Department of Transportation only receives 63 percent.

Diversion of highway revenue to other state agencies has been a fact of life for years. It's mandated by the Missouri Constitution. While some legislators have promised to stake out battle lines in an effort to move more of the money to MoDOT, little has actually been done in that regard.

Why? Because to make any changes in how the highway revenue is spent would not only require a constitutional amendment -- perhaps several of them, it would also require the legislature to find replacement funding for state agencies that would suddenly lose a piece of the revenue pie.

While shifting more money to MoDOT would certainly help meet more transportation needs, it's not enough money to pay for everything the highway department says it needs

The gap between spending and revenue exists across the state budget, not just in MoDOT's budget. More cuts in state spending along with anticipated revenue increases due to the ongoing economic recovery will more than likely provide enough money to fund state government.

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