JEFFERSON CITY - A House committee voted against a bill stripping funds from prisons, part of a budget cut plan from the House Budget Committee chair to help the governor keep his in-state tuition freeze promise.
Last week, House Budget Chairman Allen Icet, R-St. Louis County, asked the six House appropriation committees to make five percent cuts to their budgets. Gov. Jay Nixon's tuition plan requires Missouri's colleges to freeze in-state tuition in order to maintain funding levels, cutting 5 percent from last year's state appropriation. To execute the promise, Icet has asked the six committees to spread the brunt of the cuts.
The House Public Safety and Corrections Appropriations Committee voted for Icet's $1.5 million cuts for public safety, but voted against a bill cutting $19 million from the Corrections Department.
"Our issue is with today and dealing with the budget," Rep. Michael Brown, D-Jackson County said. "These cuts are too deep."
Rep. Chris Kelly, D-Columbia, said Icet's instruction to cut budgets is especially needed during the budget crunch.
"Here's the problem that Icet has: nobody wants to make cuts, but we need to start thinking about this," Kelly said.
Kelly serves on the Budget Committee. He said the main priority is to keep the budget balanced.
"Rep. Icet and I both take that oath seriously," Kelly said. "You can't spend more than you don't have."
Brown is a member of the Public Safety and Corrections Appropriations Committee. He said the Corrections Department has faced continuous budget cuts over the past four years, even though there has been an increase in the number of inmates in Missouri correctional facilities.
Rep. Chris Carter, D-St. Louis City, said if the bill were to pass, the ramifications to Missouri correctional facilities would be great.
"You would have lost a lot of money to operate a correctional facility," Carter said. "With those cuts, it would have made the situation worse."
If a prison had to be closed, Carter said criminals of non-violent crimes could be released to open room for violent criminals. Non-violent crimes are crimes against property, and can include embezzlement, counterfeiting or fraud.
In his State of the Judiciary speech earlier this month, Missouri Chief Justice William Ray Price Junior said non-violent criminals are overcrowding Missouri's prisons.
"Perhaps the biggest waste of resources in all of state government is the over-incarceration of nonviolent offenders," Price said in the speech. "It is costing us billions of dollars and it is not making a dent in crime."
But even if the state could consolidate prisons, Carter said cutting staff creates a dangerous environment for both guards and inmates.
Missouri currently has around 30,000 criminals incarcerated in prisons. Brown said the state is dealing with the highest number of prisoners it has ever had.
A spokesperson at the Corrections Department said she could not comment and her department director was out of the office.
The six budgets will go to the Budget Committee after the six committees have finalized their budgets. Although the appropriations committees can create their own budgets, the House Budget Committee determines the final that goes to the full House for approval.
Rep. Dwight Scharnhorst, R-St. Louis County, chairs the Public Safety and Corrections Appropriations Committee. He said the committee needs to approach Icet before anything further can be decided.
"This is a serious, serious issue," Scharnhorst said. "It was my recommendation that we reject the amendment and talk to Icet."
He and the other committee members plan to speak with Icet on Monday or Tuesday, Scharnhorst said.