Missouri budget - More cuts, bigger cushion

Friday, June 6, 2003

When Gov. Bob Holden vetoed two-thirds of the Missouri budget last week, he hoped there would be enough pressure from special-interest groups to force state legislators to find ways to increase spending beyond that contained in bills approved in the regular legislative session. The governor would like to see some taxes increased, including some that would require a statewide vote later this year, well after the new budget takes effect July 1.

What Holden and some supporters (including newspaper editorials in metropolitan areas -- see examples below) weren't counting on was the possibility that might find even more cuts, given the opportunity of additional time to introduce and debate budget bills. The chairman of the House Budget Committee, Carl Bearden of St. Charles, has done just that.

Another key factor in deliberations during the special session is nearly $400 million that will be coming to Missouri from the federal government. Legislators were aware during the regular session that this was a possibility. But, just as they didn't want to base spending on tax increases requiring voter approval at a later date, they didn't want to count on funding which had not been approved by Congress by the time the session ended. Congress took action, and President Bush signed the bill -- which also cut federal taxes -- last week.

Because of the hold-the-line thinking among the Republican majority in both legislative chambers and because of the extra federal dollars that are now available, legislators have an opportunity to accomplish some things that weren't possible at the end of the regular session.

First, some additional spending can be appropriated in certain areas of the state budget. Bearden has suggested more funding for education at all levels. But he also has proposed deeper cuts in mental health, health and senior services and social services programs. Those cuts would elminate more than 500 staff positions. Agency directors who complained about the cuts made during the regular session are now saying they could live with them, but this latest proposal goes too far.

For years, many taxpayers have clamored for reductions in administrative positions throughout government. At the same time, state-funded agencies have argued that these additional positions not only are necessary, but that eliminating them wouldn't save all that much money.

Most justifications and pleas to save bureaucratic jobs will fall on deaf ears among taxpayers who know little about the inner workings of state government -- and probably would be horrified if they did.

Second, there is an opportunity to build a financial cushion for the state, a very real possibility acknowledged by Bearden in his proposals for the special session. He believes there would be as much as $300 million available to cover state spending needs if revenue projections turn out to be too optimistic. The governor says even with the federal funds, the budget is still way underfunded.

It's clear a majority of legislators are in no mood to ask voters for tax increases. It's also clear that the hold-the-line approach to state spending, as hard-nosed as it may seem to some, is long overdue. Missouri has an opportunity to keep the lid on the growth in state government while living with a budget that recognizes the limits of available revenue.

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