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.

Not a windfall exactly. Maybe a breezefall

Christopher “Chris” Shaw - Photo Bill Greenblatt/UPI

Christopher “Chris” Shaw - Photo Bill Greenblatt/UPI

Just when the state needs a financial windfall, along comes a Powerball lottery winner. The jackpot of almost $260 million can be claimed in a couple of ways–in 30 payments or in a lump-sum payout.

State Lottery Director May Scheve Reardon tells us the lump-sum payout is $124,875,122. That’s before taxes. Federal taxes will gobble up some of it. State taxes will take six percent. Six percent, by our crude back-of-an-envelope math is $7,492,507.

Would that we all should be so lucky as to owe–and be able to pay–$7.5 mil in taxes to the state.

How important would that money be to the state? Consider that we learned Chris Shaw of Marshall would finally have enough money to pay his utility bills was the day the state budget director announced another $45 million dollars in withholdings from state programs and services because state income is down almost 14 percent from this time in the last fiscal year.

Of course there’s no guarantee that the taxes will be paid in this fiscal year. Last we heard, in fact, Shaw had not decided whether to take the lump or take the long-term payout that in the end will mean more money. He’s only 29, unlike a lot of Powerball winners who are much later in life and question whether they’ll see 30 payments. Nonetheless, here are a couple of examples of what $7.5 million in taxes means in these days of huge budget cuts.

The state budget office is withholding $4.9 million from the Parents as Teachers program in the newest withholdings. It’s also withholding a fourth quarter payment of $4 million from the St. Louis Metro Transit program. And it’s withholding about $36 million more in various other ways.

But there’s no way to say that the money would keep any of the $45 million dollars in withholdings from happening. Still, it’s a meaningful amount in unexpected tax income for a state that has now cut or withheld $900 million from state programs and services in this fiscal year and faces even deeper cuts in the fiscal year after the one that starts July 1. It’s a lot of money to you and me. But it’s only a small drop in a state budget that totals about $23-BILLION. So the tax won’t be a windfall exactly. But it will stir up a nice little breeze..

But still…

This guy suddenly has so much money he could wind up paying more than seven million dollars in state income taxes. Seven million!!

And you know what really gets your goat? If you had bought YOUR Powerball ticket one second earlier or one second later, you might have gotten that ticket.

The state lottery wants you to think about that a lot.

Association of Healthcare Journalists Conference

In efforts to educate the public about the news around them, journalists must first educate themselves. Don’t kid yourselves, we don’t just regurgitate what’s thrown around Washington, or the water cooler for that matter, bureaucrats, party mouthpieces… In fact, many of the issues that affect our listening / reading public send us into a tailspin, scratching our heads, and, sometimes, God forbid, even trying to do math. That’s when we stop, reassess, absorb and research. And, do what we do best: ask a lot of questions.

One way to better report current events is to attend conferences. And that’s what I’m doing this week. I’m at the Hyatt in Chicago for the annual Association of Healthcare Journalists Conference, where I’ve picked out a full load of seminars and workshops that I — and my bosses — believe will give us greater insight on how to navigate this Grendel of a topic that affects each and every American … every human … HEALTHCARE.

Today, and over the course of the next three, I’ll be hearing about everything from how to quantify data and medical studies, turning them into consumable information that you can actually understand, and hopefully, use, to the trends in obstetrics and C-section rates. Oh, and healthcare reform. Talk about a tailspin.

Today’s keynote speakers were the Director of the Centers for Disease Control, Thomas Frieden, who talked about the newest report on smoking statistics, state-by-state (Missouri ranks at the bottom of the bottom, BTW), and former Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius, Obama’s Health Secretary, who talked about (drumroll, please), healthcare reform. Her concern seems to be in line with those of us who do the news: How do we get the RIGHT information out to the American public?

I’m in the process of gathering audio from both and will have it posted soon, and in the meantime, I’ll be getting more and more good stuff to pass on.

In addition to keeping an eye on this blog, you can follow my tweets from the conference. Some 250 of my peers are also note-taking, recording and Twittering away. The conference hashtag is #ahcj2010.

Anything you’re dying to find out about (bad cliche, I know) about healthcare? I’ll try to find out. Text me your questions to 573.680.7117, or e-mail them to jmachetta@missourinet.com with “healthcare” in the subject line.