Legislature opens session preparing for inevitable cuts

Thursday, January 10, 2002

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Lawmakers braced for tough budget decisions and pledged to protect education funding as they started the 2002 legislative session Wednesday.

As the gavels fell in the House and Senate on the largely ceremonial first day, many talked of the need to cooperate to balance a budget that likely will require cutting some programs to expand others.

Leaders in both chambers, as well as Gov. Bob Holden, listed their top priority as funding public schools.

After that "everything ... is on the table" for potential cuts, said House Minority Leader Catherine Hanaway, R-Warson Woods, who sat next to House Speaker Jim Kreider at an opening-day news conference.

"There are lots of things we're willing to cut," added Kreider, D-Nixa.

It is there that conflicts could arise, as lawmakers seek to protect their favorite programs and take aim at others.

Senate President Pro Tem Peter Kinder, for example, said he wanted to supply the full $220 million increase requested for the public school funding formula. But he views the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education that oversees school districts as "a top-heavy bloated bureaucracy" -- a target for cuts.

Already, Holden has vetoed or cut about $600 million from the budget lawmakers passed for the current fiscal year. If more cuts are needed this year, it will be Holden's decision.

$1 billion less in budget

What lawmakers are concerned about is crafting the budget for the 2003 fiscal year that starts July 1. Many of Holden's cuts will have to be carried over, budget officials said. And even then, some programs will have to be cut further to fund spending increases for schools and the state's Medicaid health-care program.

Kreider said the fiscal 2003 budget will have to be about $1 billion less than lawmakers had expected one year ago.

Just as the state survived the Great Depression and a severe budget crunch in the early 1980s, "we will get through this," said Kinder, R-Cape Girardeau, "but it will take working together."

As part of the budget, the state also will be asked to fund security improvements in response to the Sept. 11 attacks. But no estimates are available yet.

Money matters also are expected to dominate discussions on issues not directly related to this year's budget -- whether to commit future state funds for city development projects and sports stadiums, and whether to ask voters to approve a tax increase for transportation.

Rep. Russ Carnahan, for one, is hoping that lawmakers can find new money for education and transportation and city development projects.

"They could be part of a package that could really have a significant impact on our economy and jobs," said Carnahan, D-St. Louis.

Rep. Jerry King, R-Butler, said the focus should be first education funding, adding without being specific that "I think some of the other priorities will be set aside."

Although there are few advocates of a general tax increase, some lawmakers are making it a goal to stop any tax increase that may be proposed.

"If you increase taxes when times are tough, they hang around when times get better. It just doesn't make any sense," said Sen. Larry Rohrbach, R-California. "Also, tax increases don't help economic problems, they're somewhat of a drain on the economy."

Lame-duck legacy

The 2002 session will be the last for Rohrbach, who is prevented from seeking re-election by term limits. Eleven other senators and 77 representatives also will be forced from their seats at the end of year, although they still could seek other office.

Holden is hoping the large class of lame-duck lawmakers will feel compelled to leave a legacy -- to work together to pass legislation on which they could not agree in the past.

"Out of these times of challenges come great opportunities," Holden said. "This session can truly be a positive one."

Holden is to present his budget proposal during a Jan. 23 address to the Legislature.

The session runs through May. 17.

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