The “No-To” Guys

The final record of this legislative session will be written in the last two weeks, as is the case with most legislative sessions. But this one already has an important distinction: The legislature’s proposed state budget for the next fiscal year has been sent to the Governor with a week and a day to spare.

It’s not only an unusual accomplishment—nobody can remember this kind of thing happening since the state constitution was changed to require the budget to be finished a week before the end of the session—it’s something of a tribute to the ability of lawmakers to work in a big-time pressure-cooker situation.

We’ve had bad budget years for state spending in the past, certainly. But this year’s budget road was full of potholes and they seemed to get deeper as the appropriations and the budget committees went along it. The lawmakers knew when the session started that the state’s economy was in the porcelain commode and the budget they had to write would be tight. Senate Appropriations Chairman Rob Mayer of Dexter met with his staff early in the session and they mapped out $150 million dollars in potential cuts.

The Governor’s budget office and the House and Senate financial wizards got together to find consensus on how much money the state would be able to spend. In January, Governor Nixon laid out a spending plan totaling $23,857,795,551. There was some blue sky in that budget, namely $300 million the state expected to get in federal Medicaid expansion funds from Washington.

But weeks went by and that money wasn’t materializing. Then came word that it would not. Instant $300 million dollar pothole. And Budget Director Linda Luebbering kept reporting, month after month, that the state’s tax income was falling more and more behind the figures from last year. By April first, it was a double-digit difference. Governor Nixon asked the legislature to cut $500 million from his budget recommendations. Although there was some partisan grousing about Nixon not giving a lawmakers a list of recommended cuts, the committees started squeezing the turnip some more. The final budget compromise has missed the Governor’s target by about forty million dollars.

It’s an old adage at the Capitol that budget-writing goes smoother when there’s no extra money to fight about. Mayer thinks that was a factor in getting the proposals from the House and Senate into a negotiating committee which surprised many observers by reaching a compromise relatively fast.

But is that compromise good enough? Good enough for government work, to turn a well-oiled phrase? As far as the legislature is concerned it is.

But not to a few people, particularly Senators Matt Bartle of Lee’s Summit, who proclaims that he is so right-wing that he thinks more always can be cut, and Senator Jason Crowell of Cape Girardeau, whose definition of “tax increase” has been described on this blog earlier. The budget is made up of 13 bills. The first one is constitutionally mandated and contains money to pay the state’s debts–interest and principal on bond issues. The last one appropraites money to pay rent for state office buildings and for other capital improvements. The constitution will not let the state deficit-spend so it has to keep up with its loan payments. And it would be pretty embarrassing if some landlord put a state agency on the curb for non-payment of rent. All of the other bills give the legislature at least some discretion.

The debt-payment bill never returned to the Senate because the House and Senate agreed . But the other bills resulted from compromise negotiations and came back to the Senate for a final legislative decision. Bartle voted “no” on all 12 of those bills. Crowell voted “no” on all but the last one, supporting the one paying the rent. However, the two voted “no” on all of the bills underwriting state programs and services. Both say the legislature is sending Governor Nixon an unbalanced budget. Crowell forecasts Nixon will have to lay off more state workers or look at bigger cuts to education to save the kind of money that needs to be saved. Bartle says lawmakers lack the will to make cuts that are necessary. No other Senator voted against all of the bills. Senator Jolee Justus of Kansas City voted for two of the 12 compromise measures.

The final total is $23,274,922,486. But if Bartle and Crowell are right, there’s still plenty of blue sky in the budget.

The situation is not without hope. But with each day’s passage as we head to adjournment on May 14th, that hope dwindles. The Senate’s “Rebooting Missouri” program that solicited pubic suggestions for ways to reduce the size and cost of government, has produced about two dozen bills doing just that. If all of them pass, the state could save $130 million dollars. Not all of it would be saved right away. But a lot would be.

Those bills are in various stages of approval. Some might even seem to be in a state of DIS-approval in the process. There’s even been some talk of a special legislative session if they don’t make it. But that raises questions about whether the Governor would want to spend money on a special session at a time when money is sooooo tight.

One thing we have learned from long years of watching the legislature: the last two weeks usually define the session. The ticking clock adds the increasing pressure of urgency to the House and to the Senate, pressure that has a tendency to loosen up bills that are stuck in the process, pressure that brings resurrection to issues once pronounced dead. Easter comes often in the Missouri General assembly. Whether it comes for those two dozen bills so critical to avoiding more budget cuts depends on the response of the people we have elected to represent us at the Capitol, even the “No-To” guys in the Senate.

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