Public asks Missouri budget writers to be gentle

Tuesday, December 9, 2008 | 7:39 p.m. CST; updated 10:36 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, May 20, 2009

JEFFERSON CITY — Lawmakers bracing for budget cuts heard public pleas Tuesday for more spending on everything from newborn screenings to public transportation for seniors.

As the Senate Appropriations Committee began taking testimony on next year’s budget, Chairperson Gary Nodler, R-Joplin, warned that the state faces significant challenges because of the national recession.

But advocates for various programs and services said the poor economy was all the more reason why the state needs to boost spending — or at least avoid cuts — in certain areas.

“Parenting becomes more even more challenging when those economic realities are setting in,” said Sue Stepleton, president of the Parents as Teachers national center in St. Louis and the first of about 90 witnesses who asked to testify before the Senate committee.

Not only should the state continue its $34 million in annual funding for the program that provides in-home child screenings and advice for the parents of young children, it should increase its spending so more families can be served, Stepleton said.

Next up was Greg Wingert, president of the Missouri Association of Rehabilitation Facilities, who urged lawmakers not to cut funding for the job training services that aid people with physical and mental disabilities.

“The recession is hitting people with disabilities particularly hard,” Wingert told the Senate panel.

A state contractor of vocational rehabilitation services went a step further, asking for a 3 percent increase in the reimbursements he and others receive because they have trailed inflation.

Gov.-elect Jay Nixon’s budget advisers have warned that Missouri could face a $342 million shortfall in 2009 fiscal year, which ends June 30. Upon taking office in January, Nixon has said he will ask state agencies for ways to cut spending in the short-term, place a freeze on new long-term contracts and re-evaluate state construction projects, among other steps.

The Senate Appropriations Committee is beginning work on the 2010 budget, which is to begin July 1, 2009. If cuts must be made, they likely will have to come from areas that rely most heavily on general state tax dollars, Nodler said.

“We are better positioned than most of the states,” Nodler said. “Nevertheless, the challenges we face are significant.”

Many of Tuesday’s witnesses acknowledged the problem as a preface to their pleas for funding their favorite programs.

“I would just ask in this climate of cuts to please not hobble us,” said Josie Mai, an assistant art professor at Missouri Southern State University in Joplin who urged lawmakers to continue funding the three-week Missouri Fine Arts Academy for select high school students.

The Missouri scholars and fine arts academies received a combined $718,306 from the state in the current budget.

The Missouri Department of Transportation received $4 million for public transit in the current budget. But the department has requested a more than fivefold increase to $22 million next year.

That drew the support Tuesday of Linda Yaeger, executive director of OATS Inc., which provides public transit in 87 of Missouri’s 114 counties and prioritizes its services for the elderly and disabled.

“We are not oblivious to the fact that the state’s poor,” said Yaeger, also speaking on behalf of the Missouri Public Transit Association. But the recommended funding increase “is an important one, and it needs to be considered.”

Renewing what has been a near annual discussion in recent years, Cole County Sheriff Greg White and Capitol Police Chief Todd Hurt urged lawmakers to approve money for metal detectors to screen visitors at the Capitol. Hurt estimated it would cost several hundred thousand dollars to install the machines with some costs continuing each year.

Metal detectors were installed following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks but were removed in 2003 because of a previous state budget crunch. Hurt said that since then, police have been studying how to be more efficient and keep visitors moving through the machines.

But lawmakers have resisted efforts to install metal detectors again.

Sen. Tim Green, D-St. Louis, said Tuesday that unless a parking garage located under the Capitol is closed, setting up metal detectors wouldn’t matter much.

To improve security, Capitol Police last year doubled the number of people patrolling the building at any given time, which cost $200,000.

Associated Press writer Chris Blank contributed to this report.

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