House taking on task of shaping tight budget

Monday, March 4, 2002

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- On a portable dry-erase board, the type you might see in a school, House Budget chairman Tim Green has displayed an intentionally startling chart.

In red numbers with blue headings are the amounts of money -- broken down by state departments -- that the state expects to spend this year and that Gov. Bob Holden has proposed to spend next year.

Another column shows how much general tax revenue per department is available to legislators for cutting or reshuffling, assuming certain agencies are off limits.

The bottom line: Legislative budget writers have about $500 million from which they could cut.

But without new revenues proposed by Holden, legislators would have to cut between $423 million and $717 million to balance the budget.

No small task.

But lawmakers are giving it a shot.

Sifting through budget

The seven House appropriations committees are sifting through Holden's budget proposal, comparing it to this year's expenses, and on Green's directions are attempting to cut as much as they can.

For example, the Appropriations Committee for General Administration has recommended a 40 percent cut in the operating budgets of the governor's office and those of many other statewide elected officials.

The committee has recommended a similar 40 percent cut -- on top of Holden's suggested 10 percent cut -- for the operations of the Department of Revenue.

The panel's plan would eliminate 107 revenue positions -- some of which are responsible for collecting state revenues. Without those revenue collectors, the state would take in $11 million less, said department spokeswoman Susanne Medley.

Hence a problem: Cutting some expenses ultimately could reduce state revenues, making the state's budget problems worse.

Green's eraser board scenario assumes no additional cuts for some agencies, such as the Department of Corrections, which faces the mandatory task of housing, feeding and providing medical care for a growing prisoner population.

Yet in the spirit of across-the-board cuts, the chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee for Corrections and Public Safety is seeking to cut at least $35 million from Holden's budget request.

The needed effect

When chairwoman Glenda Kelly asked the Corrections Department to provide scenarios for $35 million or $65 million in cuts, the department responded with a plan that would close prisons, layoff guards and release inmates.

That wasn't popular with Kelly.

"I don't agree with these scenarios, but it does have the effect that was definitely needed, and that is to get everybody involved to look at what's in the budget," said Kelly, D-St. Joseph.

That is precisely what Green, of St. Louis, hoped to accomplish.

The eraser board chart is intended to show how difficult it is to cut the state's budget without unwanted consequences.

It also is intended to counter the arguments of House Republican Leader Catherine Hanaway of Warson Woods, who has said repeatedly that the state has a spending problem, not a revenue problem.

Democratic leaders -- from Holden to Green to House Speaker Jim Kreider of Nixa -- have disputed her assertion. They challenge skeptics to come up with a better plan.

But Hanaway says Holden's plan was flawed from the start.

To fund an increase for public schools, it depends on legislators approving new taxes on casinos and changing other parts of the state's tax laws. And to fund some mental health services and public transit, it depends on lawmakers giving approval to tap into the state's savings.

"I don't believe the governor sent us a balanced budget," Hanaway said.

Green, who is supporting legislation to implement many of Holden's recommendations, is going along with that assertion for now. He has instructed appropriations committees to base their budgets only on known revenues -- not potentially new revenues.

In the end, however, the new revenues may be back in the equation.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: