Analysis: Mo. lawmakers use budget to make points

Sunday, March 16, 2008 | 5:04 p.m. CDT; updated 11:34 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY — Republican House members have made a political point by cutting the budget of Democratic Attorney General Jay Nixon. But it may be a dull point when it comes to state law.

Republicans on the House Budget Committee voted late at night last week to cut $3.3 million and more than 50 employees from the attorney general’s office and instead give the money and people to the Department of Labor and Industrial Relations.

The transfer is intended to strip the attorney general of his ability to defend the state’s Second Injury Fund against claims from people who suffer repeated workplace injuries. Two separate analyses have projected the fund will become insolvent within the next two years.

The analyses cite a need for more revenues. But Republicans want to pin the potential insolvency on the rising payouts to injured workers, suggesting Nixon’s attorneys are to blame. It just so happens that Nixon is the Democratic candidate for governor.

“My concern is I don’t think the fund is being managed or defended well,” said Rep. Jim Lembke, R-St. Louis, who led the effort to transfer money away from Nixon’s office.

But Lembke’s amendment itself could cause concern.

That’s because the budget cut runs contrary to Missouri law, which specifically requires the state to use assistant attorneys general to handle workplace disability and death claims made against the Second Injury Fund.

The bottom line is this: If the budget cut stands up, the attorney general’s office still would be required by law to handle the injury claims, even if it no longer has the people and money to do so.

“It would be an unfortunate disruption of services and appropriate compensation for injured workers,” said Nixon spokesman John Fougere, who contends the office has done an efficient and effective job of defending claims against the injury fund.

When statutory changes are needed to enact a budget item, the House normally requires a bill making those changes to have first passed before the money is included in the budget.

That’s why the budget the House will debate later this month includes no money for Gov. Matt Blunt’s proposed expansion of government subsidized health care or House Speaker Rod Jetton’s proposed pay raise for teachers. Their corresponding bills are still in committees.

House Republicans appear to have created an exception to that rule to try to make a point about the Second Injury Fund. A bill changing that statute has yet to receive a committee hearing.

Yet the budget cut also makes a point about lawmakers. Over the years, legislators have displayed a pattern of budgetary point-making. Consider these few examples:

•This marks the second time House Republicans have voted to transfer Second Injury Fund money away from the attorney general to the labor department. The House did it last year. But the Senate reversed that move.

• House members for several years voted to reduce state subsidies for Amtrak’s twice daily passenger train between Kansas City and St. Louis, registering their dislike of the service. Each time, the Senate restored the money.

• Last year, Sen. Harry Kennedy, D-St. Louis, cut in half the $157,238 salary of a Department of Social Services official because he was unhappy with the administrator’s response to his questions. The bureaucrat’s full salary ultimately was restored in the final version of the budget.

• In 2002, House members cut the UM System’s budget by $500,000 in protest of a policy at MU’s TV station prohibiting staffers from wearing patriotic symbols; by $120,000 because some politicians believed the assistant chancellor of the St. Louis campus had campaigned while on the job; and by $100,000 in retaliation against a Kansas City campus professor who wrote about pedophilia and homosexuality.

Budget negotiators ultimately settled on a $200,000 cut to the system’s budget as punishment for those offenses. But the cuts didn’t directly hit their targets. That’s because the system gets its money in a lump sum, and UM officials did not plan to take money away from the people or projects with whom lawmakers were upset.

Because of term limits, three-fourths of the House members from 2001-02 are now gone from the legislature. Yet some of their successors are using similar tactics.

“There are people who are vindictive, and making political points by taking inappropriate actions through the budget doesn’t serve anyone well,” said Rep. Rachel Storch, D-St. Louis. She objected, to little avail, during the House committee vote that transferring the Second Injury Fund money away from the attorney general likely was illegal.

Lembke said labor department officials want to take over the duties of defending Second Injury Fund cases. But Storch said no one from the department made that request during budget hearings. And department officials declined to comment.

Were Lembke’s budget cut to stick, it might backfire. By transferring the defense of the Second Injury Fund to the executive branch, Republicans might enable a Nixon administration to continue overseeing it, if Nixon is elected governor.

Lembke said he hadn’t considered that possibility.

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