«RM75»«FC»COL12.MDH - Battle For Budget Biggest Job Facing Lawmakers
Each year lawmakers will file more than a thousand measures, yet the General Assembly has one and only one thing that it absolutely, positively must do: approve the state's annual budget.
The budget process contains all the elements of a policy thriller: lots of money, lots of politics and lots of people affected by the outcome.
It should come as no surprise that the citizens of a state called the Show-Me State are a little skeptical when it comes to trusting politicians with tax dollars.
Missouri has nearly every possible safeguard to protect against reckless handling of public money. Voters must approve indebtedness. The state can't run a deficit. The state can't issue anticipation notes to spend money before it receives revenues. The governor has line-item budget veto power. The state can't spend a single dime unless it is appropriated by the General Assembly AND the revenues are physically received and deposited in the appropriate account.
Despite Missouri's gold-standard budget safeguards, mischief historically abounds.
While revenues themselves often were tight, passing a budget prior to 1968 wasn't that difficult. Most legislative leaders were the governor's men, Lawmakers met every two years and passed the governor's budget for the next two years.
U.S. Supreme Court rulings limiting gerrymandering and the Missouri Senate seizing power over itself from the executive branch put the state budget process into play. The governor would propose a budget, but lawmakers would have a real hand in approving what the governor could ultimately spend.
In the late 1980s, Republican John Ashcroft was governor and the Democrats held a strong majority in both the House and Senate. Neither could agree on much, including the revenue estimates on which the budget would be based. The governor, House and Senate each had their own estimates.
Democrats in the legislature made an art of appropriating far more for education than even they believed the state would receive and consequently could spend. This left the governor -- called by some the "education" governor -- in the awkward position of having to withhold and cut funds from a budget bloated by education.
A big breakthrough came when the legislature and governor finally agreed to consensus revenue estimates. Another came when voters passed an amendment requiring the budget to be passed a week before the end of the legislative session.
It didn't take long for lawmakers to break that requirement: Republicans shut down debate over Planned Parenthood funding on the final day to pass the budget. A rather angry Gov. Mel Carnahan wasted no time in calling a special session.
When Democrat Bob Holden became governor, and the Republicans had gained control of the legislature, Holden proposed a budget balanced on a tobacco tax increase identical to one voters had rejected just months before. And, he forbade his agency heads from answering questions from lawmakers about where cuts might be made if revenues were not what the governor projected -- Holden's way or no way.
In frustration, House Speaker Catherine Hanaway dispensed with the thousands-of-pages budget and passed budget bills as small as two pages.
The bills simply gave agency directors power to decide how to allocate their limited funds. This forced the Senate, used to reworking the full House budget, to start from scratch. That budget was finally adopted, but vetoed by a furious Holden who sought a higher budget from his tax-hike. He called lawmakers into two special sessions. In the end, lawmakers twice passed the same lower spending levels and Holden gave up.
That's the kind of history Missourians should hope never repeats. But some is already repeating.
This year, lawmakers and the governor have been unable to agree on consensus revenue estimates.
Republicans are attacking Nixon's budget as too accommodating for welfare, and his supplemental budget as too big.
One Democrat representative is calling for the Senate Appropriations Committee chair to resign because he seeks higher office.
And lawmakers are threatening to withhold university funding unless a professor who blocked the press from protesters is fired.
Yes, Missouri has gold standard budget safeguards... and for good reason.
[After a career in journalism, Mark Hughes became a top, non-partisan policy analyst for Missouri government including the state Senate, state Treasurer's Office and the utility-regulating PSC. He has been an observer and analyst of state government since the administration of Gov. Kit Bond.]