Now's the time for real state leadership

One lesson has been painfully learned by Gov. Bob Holden and state legislators as they struggle to craft a balanced budget: There isn't enough money to pay for all the programs that were fully funded when the economy was good and the state's cash flow was growing so fast that taxpayers were getting refund checks under the revenue-limiting Hancock Amendment.

Nonetheless, this is the year the governor and some legislators are touting a multimillion-dollar financing package for sports stadiums and looking for ways to raise millions more for highways.

For a lot of reasons, this doesn't look like a good year to be talking about extravagant spending schemes when important state services ranging from economic development to higher education to mental health to river ports are being pared to the bone.

During the years when money was freely flowing into state coffers, the budget process was simple: Appropriate until there's nothing left.

But when spending requests far outstrip anticipated revenue, which is the case this year, it's much tougher to be fiscally responsible and still be responsive to everybody's wish list.

It's in times like these that the mettle of our leaders is truly tested. And for most Missourians, watching the decision makers in Jefferson City joust over stadiums and dither over highways isn't building a lot of confidence or trust.

Major league teams are important -- the impact on Missouri of having these teams is enormous -- but this is the year to think twice about committing millions of dollars for professional sports. The economy appears to be on the rebound. Why not wait to look at this issue next January, when budget planners know for sure if the economic recovery is on solid ground?

The state's highway needs are estimated by the Missouri Department of Transportation to be a billion dollars more annually than we're currently generating. But the plain fact is we can't afford that much without imposing an enormous burden on future taxpayers through a massive bond issue, huge tax increases -- or both. However, we can generate $200 million -- $300 million? $400 million? -- by making sure all of the state's fuel-tax revenue goes to highways and by a modest increase in the fuel tax.

There's another way to address funding for highway projects around the state. Kirksville voters this month approved -- by a 4-to-1 margin -- a half-cent sales tax to pay the city's portion of a $38 million project to improve U.S. 63 between Kirksville and Macon.

That's a model that has worked well around here on smaller-scale improvements. Perhaps other parts of the state with similar needs could ask voters what they're willing to pay for highway improvements that benefit them the most.