Since my last blog wasn't very substantive, I'd like to devote time to understanding the budget, and hopefully in the process I can help future journalists who cover the budget.
For anyone who bravely commits to report on the Missouri budget, remember to be cautious when a cut is listed as "lapse" funding. The cuts issued Thursday included $45 million for this fiscal year's budget, but some of the cuts weren't actually stripped away from programs. For example, the $13 million "cut," or budget restriction, from the Access Missouri scholarship appropriation was funding the program wasn't going to use. Because the money is appropriated only to the Access Missouri program, the government cannot redirect funding from the program to something else.
Thus far, the budget cuts for the 2010 budget year have reached nearly $900 million dollars. With two months left in the 2010 fiscal, reaching the billion-dollar mark could be plausible.
Also, I've experienced some interesting discussion on what exactly happens when the governor and his administration issues a statement announcing "budgetary restrictions" in the current fiscal year budget cut. This is a concept that took me forever to grasp, and I still don't entirely comprehend the legal explanation of the process in which the governor restricts funding from the budget. But I'll attempt to explain how the budget works.
When the Missouri House and Senate create the budget bills, they are in no way creating a budget based on a predetermined about of money that exists. By that, I mean the Senate and the House doesn't have a giant bank vault with all the government money they can spend for state operations, services, wages and salaries, etc. Trust me, I've yet to find a huge bank vault like the one Scrooge McDuck has in his mansion. So, essentially, the budget is determined on money that doesn't exist until the budget year goes into effect.
Imagine Jake, a respectable businessman from a suburban community, wants to buy his wife, Penny, a new sports car. When they sit down to figure out their yearly budget, they plan out grocery expenditures, utility costs, mortgage payments, and everything else they need to put in their home budget. The couple also lists the sleek red sports car Jake promised to purchase.
But months later in April, a recession jostles Jake's company into a precarious situation. Some of his fellow co-workers lose their jobs, but Jake fortunately keeps his.
Jake, however, receives a substantial cut in his salary.
When Jake comes home, he must deliver the bad news to Penny. They look at their budget. The only way for them to break even by the end of their budget year would be to omit the car from the budget.
Now, most Americans could ignore this problem and accrue a huge amount of debt, but Penny and Jake had a prenuptial agreement to never spend beyond their means -- this is like the Missouri Constitution, which requires Missouri to have a balanced budget.
Penny is distraught, and begins balling. She has to make an announcement to her friends that she cannot drive them to the mall or the movies in the sexy red sports car her failure of a husband had promised to give her. Since Jake cannot buy his wife the stylish red sports car she so desires, she leaves Jake for a balding billionaire CEO on Wall Street -- this last paragraph had nothing to do with the Missouri budget process, but I wanted to end the story with a little drama.
Missouri has to come out even at the end of the year, or else the governor would defy a provision in the Missouri Constitution. Jake, or the governor, has to fulfill the constitutional promise acknowledged by the Missouri people. He has no choice; he must have a balanced budget by June 30, the last day of the 2010 fiscal year budget.
The car has to either lose funding or be cut entirely from the budget.
As a result, people get upset. But Jake cannot provide money for his household amenities because he doesn't have the same cash flow he used to have, just as Missouri's income tax revenue and general revenue have plummeted below projected numbers. April tax collections are down 19 percent for the first 20 days compared to last April, and Jake received a bigger paycheck a year ago. Jake didn't plan on incurring a pay decrease and must accommodate for less money.
Now, this analogy might not be the best, but it at least describes the situation in layman's terms.
All this said, what's going to happen next year? If things don't get better in the next year or two, will we see a repeat of what's been happening with this year's budget cuts? The General Assembly has had the monumental task of filling a $500 million budget deficit for the 2011 fiscal year, but will the general revenue projections listed in for the 2011 budget year, which starts on July 1, be accurate enough to provide funds for the appropriations? Many of these questions will unfurl as the economy improves or worsens.
Not only am I excited for summer break, but I think most of Missouri's representatives and senators are excited for this grueling session to end.
Tuesday was one of those 12-hour days no one wishes to have happen, but appreciates in retrospect. Andrew Denny and I wrote an informative story about the Senate's first steps toward "rebooting" state government. To say the least, we worked our butts off. I hate to self-promote and sound immodest, but check this out.
Just as I thought Thursday would stay dull, I heard a Senator mention private scholarships over the MDN Senate radio. I leaped from my seat and dashed to the Senate.
After rushing by a table covered in all sorts of goodies and treats journalists are forbidden to eat, I made it to the Senate chambers to see if the utterance of "scholarship" meant anything.
When I got there, it turns out several senators were just engaging in a heated debate about absolutely nothing. Apparently, they had argued for so long that they had actually made a full circle and began to discuss something from the very beginning of the debate.
One senator quietly expressed the psychological damage he has incurred from the very verbose senators:
"I have nightmares I'm on the Senate floor in a filibuster and I'm screaming 'HELP ME! HELP ME!"
And I thought my zombie apocalypse nightmares were frightening. I've got nothing on the Senator's mental disturbances.
Luckily, the Senate sits right next to the most important room in the capitol: the Senate coffee room. Before writing a story on funds for the Ellis Fischel Cancer Center, I recharged on some lovely Senate sludge.Things I learned this week:
Sleep dreams, MDN blog readers. Try not to dream of Senate filibusters or zombies. Or worse, Senate zombies who like filibustering.
Speaking of zombie politicians, check this out. And since this video pokes fun at Republicans, I'll give you this gem to poke fun at Democrats. Gotta love the Onion for objectively insulting everyone.
If I had gotten to the House a few minutes earlier, I would have seen an interesting verbal brawl between two representatives.
According to MDN reporters and other news organizations who witnessed the fight, Rep. Jeff Roorda, D-Barnhart, and Tim Jones, R-St. Louis County, charged at one another after Roorda voiced ardent opposition to Republican amendments to the budget bills, among many other things.
An MDN reporter recorded the incident, but the microphone system was cut out before every word in the altercation could be recorded.
Ô01CIf youÔ019ve got something to say, then you stand up andÔ026Ô01D Roorda said before the audio was cut off.
Jones, who was not speaking into a microphone, was audibly heard yelling "You're a liar!" several times.
Both men were escorted from the floor.
In a message on Twitter, Jones said the two men had apologized for the altercation:
"For the record: Rep Roorda and I privately met and personally exchanged apologies. We agreed: budget battles are difficult and emotional."
Although ill-tempered and violent discourse isn't productive for any legislative body, it's very interesting to witness -- even if I wasn't there. The incident reminded me of Joe Wilson's outburst during President Obama's speech on health care in September -- at least Wilson didn't charge Obama. I'm hoping someone in any U.S. legislative body brings caning back into popularity. Anyone remember the little incident between Charles Sumner and Preston Brooks? Here are some other interesting outbursts that have occurred in the past year.
The Senate held interesting work sessions on Tuesdays that allowed constituents to voice their opinions via e-mail and public testimony. In the education session, four senators read e-mails from constituents and addressed their concerns.
"Bureaucrats are like cockroaches: it's not what they consume; it's what they get into or mess up," Sen. Gary Nodler, R-Joplin said.
One student from the University of Missouri pleaded to the committee in an e-mail that the government should provide more money for 'hire education.' The senators had a fun time teasing the official from Mizzou who was present at the education pow-wow. I'm guessing the student needs lawmakers to appropriate more money to higher education so he can learn to spell.
In another e-mail, a constituent suggested that Mizzou get rid of the gigantic billboards on the side of the highway. Whenever I drive to and from Chicago, I pass the billboards, and I could understand why a constituent.
Spring break starts tomorrow; I will see you in a week, Missouri.
No, it's not a life threatening disease. But it does mean I have excruciating pain in my left foot.
I forgot to blog about last week's experiences, so I'll start then.
Last week, I covered the budget. I was thrust from my duties as reporter for the education beat, and obtained the duties of budget beat reporter.
It was pretty intimidating.
Tuesday I danced around the Senate and House floors, looking for the right person to ask about a half billion dollar shortfall in the 2011 fiscal budget. Nick covered for broadcast while I covered for print. We had quite an adventure looking for the right people. I got to know Sen. Kurt Schaefer very well, because he seemed the most knowledgeable on the subject. I think it's great when a representative or a senator can recognize you, but it's also bad because they can see you coming down the hall, giving them time to leap into the dark recesses of the office.
I think I nearly killed a senator today.
I won't name the name of the senator, so I'll refer to him or her as The Senator -- anyone read "Black Water" by Carol Joyce Oates? Anyway, Nick and I decided to interview The Senator about whether or not a caucus meeting was being held later in the day. I started asking a question, and about midway through my sentence, The Senator started to cough. His or her coughing evolved into a loud hacking, and then his or her face turned bright red. He dashed across the Senate lounge and went into the bathroom.
At first, I thought I had annoyed him or her with a question, so I thought the coughing fit was a ploy to escape an interview. But when I determined he or she was obviously not pretending, I panicked. I asked him or her if he was OK, but he or she had left for the bathroom before I could get an answer.
Luckily, he or she returned after a minute and approached us.
"Sorry about that. What was your question?"
Thursday I covered my first press conference. I guess the broadcast reporters go there all the time to get information from the party leaders in the House. The press conference was on budget bills House Budget Chairman Allen Icet had filed the previous night. In short, the Missouri budget is not good. I heard an analogy "floating around" about how the budget is like the Titanic.
This week was uneventful, but somewhat productive. I'm starting an enterprise story on high school sports injuries. Next Tuesday is Brain Injury Awareness Day, and I'm hoping to talk to lots of people about their stories concerning sports injuries.
Oh, and Kansas City Schools!
The school board in Kansas City voted to close nearly half the schools in the district to stave off bankruptcy -- 29 out of 61, to be precise.
Here's the AP story.
I wonder if this vote will foreshadow further school reductions in other districts.
I'm not explaining my title.
Thursday was an enterprise day. There were a lot of children scuttling about the capitol; I was kind of terrified. I'm not sure why they were here, but they were certainly excited about something. They were just roaming around the halls, peeking into legislators' offices and asking questions. Maybe children are the solution to better government transparency.
Phill wants the print people to step it up with enterprise stories. He said the process of statehouse reporting can get addicting, and I would have to agree. BUT, a story isn't a story when it only discusses what politicians said. The story needs people who are affected by the issues!
I need to work on my leads. I'm at a stage where I know a lead is utter rubbish, but I'm not sure how to kill it and make it a better one. In news lecture today we discussed some very interesting leads from journalists at the Missourian and other news sources. Prof. Katherine Reed showed us a great one from a crime reporter, Edna Buchanan, who worked at the Miami Herald in the 1970s. The lead is at the end, but read the whole paragraph from the New Yorker to understand the lead.
I hate to be repetitive, but yet again, more budget woes surfaced this week in the Missouri House.
I wrote a story Thursday that trailed from education budget woes to budget woes in other areas in government. Gov. Jay Nixon's in-state tuition freeze has provided an array of interesting problems for appropriation committees who have been asked by House Budget Chairman Allen Icet to reduce their budgets by 5%.
What does this mean for the six appropriation committees, including education?
Well, I can certainly tell you about the Public Safety and Corrections Appropriation Committee.
The Public Safety and Corrections Appropriation Committee voted for $1.5 million in cuts for public safety, but voted against a bill cutting $19 million for the Corrections Department.
I talked to three representatives on the committee. They all said the ramifications would include closing a prison or several prisons, as well as firing guards and letting prisoners of non-violent crimes participate in correctional programs outside prison walls.
I asked Rep. Michael Brown if the cuts for prisons to help Gov. Nixon's education promise would mean prisoners roaming the streets at the cost of higher education. He assured me this was not the case. It would have been funny if my story had a title like, "Murderous criminals exonerated to help Missouri students pay for school." But that was NOT the case.
But still, this situation brings up interesting questions about underfunding prison facilities. In addition, there seems to be some discussion about the punishments of violent vs. non-violent criminals.
Chief Justice William Ray Price commented in his State of the Judiciary that non-violent criminals were wasting money in the correction facilities. Here's an interesting excerpt from his speech:
"Perhaps the biggest waste of resources in all of state government is the over-incarceration of nonviolent offenders and our mishandling of drug and alcohol offenders. It is costing us billions of dollars and it is not making a dent in crime. Listen to these numbers. In 1994, shortly after I came to the Court, the number of nonviolent offenders in Missouri prisons was 7,461. Today, it's 14,204. That's almost double. In 1994, the number of new commitments for nonviolent offenses was 4,857. Last year, it was 7,220 -- again, almost double. At a rate of $16,432 per offender, we currently are spending $233.4 million a year to incarcerate nonviolent offenders...not counting the investment in the 10 prisons it takes to hold these individuals at $100 million per prison. In 1994, appropriations to the Department of Corrections totaled $216,753,472. Today, it's $670,079,452. The amount has tripled. And the recidivism rate for these individuals, who are not returned to prison within just two years, is 41.6 percent."
Although I've been chained to the education beat, I'd like to find out and write more about this issue.
Well, if you're still asleep by this point in the blog, then you'll miss out on my weekly advice. Here's a lowdown on things I've learned:
Well, I have a dinner date with friends at Baja Grill back in Columbia. Time to wind down with a chicken burrito and nachos.
I'm excited for another week of reporting.
I think the excitement of my ballroom dancing story sentenced me to a not-so-exciting week of stories. I take that back; this week had exciting stories, but I just happened to be here on days when education committees weren't meeting to discuss some important topics. And I wasn't quick enough in contacting my sources.
I thought I had a story today, but it didn't have a vital piece to work. The story was on a caucus meeting held by Republicans to discuss Rep. Kelly's bond bill. I didn't have enough information to effectively tell the story.
In the process, I think I realized when I messed up. One source provided me with plenty of information, but I think after I got that information, I told myself the information from that source would be the story. I wasn't able to get a hold of a Republican who voted against a similar bill introduced by Kelly last year. I focused too much on finding that person that I didn't ask any Republican for his or her take on the caucus, or a simple explanation of what was to occur at the caucus or why it was happening. I talked to someone from a university to see what higher education was doing to pass the legislation, but he only provided more of what my first source said. Also, higher education has no control of what happens in the caucus, since caucuses are closed to the public.
My mistakes taught me several things. One, you always need opposition in a story to tell the reader why this is important. Second, don't think you've got the story's structure until you've talked to all the players involved.
Here's an additional list of things Trevor learned in Jeff City:
I've been bulleting anything with "list potential" because apparently it's easier to read and retain, according to my news lecture class. I should probably include a link to something soon, as well as bold words, two other things that help readers consume news. Hopefully that link worked, because it's the coolest Web site describing the use of semicolons.
I'm excited for a new week in Jeff City.
Ballroom dancing, higher education budget woes, and many lessons were the themes of this week.
On Tuesday, I covered a Senate Appropriations meeting bright and early. Senators heard testimony from various higher education experts about Nixon's recommendations for the 2011 fiscal year budget. Things are bleak. Stein wrote a letter to higher education institutions about possible solutions to the budget woes. He mentioned cost saving ideas that include closing institutions, privatizing certain public universities, eliminating all athletic programs and laying off faculty.
Thursday, I got a unique break from spot stories and worked on a "quick and dirty" enterprise story. I interviewed Rep. Tim Flook about his ballroom dancing bill. The bill would allow schools to provide a ballroom dancing class as a substitute to either a fine arts or physical education class. Rep. Flook discussed the importance of dancing not only to a child's physical health, but to a child's mental health. He said dancing teaches young men and women courtesy, self-esteem and respect. I also talked with his college professor, Will Adams, whose taught English and dance in locales such as Prague. If I had the choice, I'd probably choose laps and crunches over two-steps and waltzes; I have two left feet, and I probably wouldn't do very well in a dance class.
I learned a valuable lesson for the news room this week. Using social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter can be a real death sentence for a journalist's career if they're used improperly. Phill told us about someone in the press corp in Jeff City who was recently fired for remarks he made on his Twitter feed. The conversation made me think about the content I post on my Facebook and Twitter. I went through both sites and reexamined the comments I made in statuses and on my "about me" sections. I took away my political and religious affiliation awhile ago, but I made sure to delete other things that might cause trouble in the future. I'd rather have a bland and insipid Facebook than a spot on the blacklisted journalists roster. I picked up a bunch of other lessons this week:
Here's my official first blog! I tried writing one last week from home, but something malfunctioned. This blog entry will summarize the last two week's worth of material.
Working here is certainly hectic and different than any other newsroom in which I've worked before.
I don't think any news class could prepare me for this "class," which I consider a job. I've learned a lot so far, but I know I have far to go.
Last Tuesday I covered my first story here in Jeff City. The House discussed and voted on a resolution on health care, saying they had issues with the bills in Congress. The concurrent resolution passed, but at the same time Scott Brown won the Kennedy seat in Massachusetts, a death sentence for the filibuster-proof Senate. I didn't understand the purpose of the concurrent resolution until Phill explained to me that it is only an expression of opinion.
Thursday, I covered an announcement by Reps. Icet and Kelly about another concurrent resolution for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution requiring the federal government to have a balanced budget. I had my first face-to-face interview here with Rep. Kelly.
Two days ago, I covered a growing concern with funding in education. On Monday night, an appropriations committee met to discuss Gov. Nixon's recommendations for the Formula Foundation. The foundation is receiving an unprecedented amount of money to cover the costs of education, but it will fall short by $106 million.
That's a quick summary of what I've reported on so far in Jeff City. I'm hoping the process becomes more natural. Today wasn't very busy. I wish I could get here earlier on Thursdays because by the time I get here everyone has left! Next week will have a full schedule though. I'm excited to work on my profile story.