Legislators await balanced budget, bipartisanship in State of State address

Monday, January 26, 2009 | 9:04 p.m. CST; updated 11:57 p.m. CST, Monday, January 26, 2009

JEFFERSON CITY — With Gov. Jay Nixon slated to present his State of the State address Tuesday evening in Jefferson City, state government leaders from both political parties are awaiting his budget and legislative recommendations.

The focus of Nixon's address will be his budget proposal for fiscal year 2010. Last week, Nixon promised to recommend that higher education be spared from budget cuts for the following fiscal year, but he has since made no further indications of his proposed budget.

In the consensus revenue estimate released Thursday, Nixon and state budget leaders revealed an expected $261 million budget shortfall for the remainder of fiscal year 2009, which ends on June 30. General revenue collections for fiscal year 2010 are estimated at $7.76 billion and are projected to face a 1 percent growth from 2009's adjusted consensus revenue estimate.

Nixon's office refused comment Monday on budget-related questions, as did Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder. But Kinder's spokesman, Gary McElyea, said Republican legislators are prepared to respond to a balanced budget presented by Nixon.

"We hope he does (present a balanced budget), as (it) is his responsibility to bring the budget before the citizens of Missouri," McElyea said. "The Republican response will be of the same fashion: to look at better ways where we can serve the citizens of Missouri, to look at the understanding of where we stand with the budget right now."

Under the state constitution, the governor is required to present his recommendations for a balanced state budget, which is then evaluated and adjusted by the House and Senate.

Sen. Majority Leader Kevin Engler, R-Farmington, said he does not know if a balanced budget is possible under current revenue estimates and Nixon's promise to avoid budget cuts in higher education, as well as Nixon's campaign promises to restore the Medicaid cuts made during former Gov. Matt Blunt's term.

"What we're looking for is a budget that's real, that's callable, that's transparent, so that we don't have to get it over here and do the tough cutting," Engler said. "I think for him to (present a balanced budget), if he's truly going to hold the line on higher education and Medicaid, he's going to have to cut a lot of personnel.

"We know that we're in a tough fiscal time, but we want to make sure that (cuts) are fair. And we want to make sure that the budget that he presents is an actual budget that balances."

Paul LeVota, D-Independence, minority floor leader, expressed confidence in Nixon's ability to present a balanced budget that would account for all economic restraints and promises made.

"He will present a balanced budget," LeVota said. "The governor is trying to deal with the challenge of not only the downturn in the economy but also the issues left by the previous administration and trying to set the right priorities to get Missouri on the right path again."

In 2004, former Gov. Bob Holden gave a budget proposal that could be balanced only if $689 million in tax increases was raised. But because the budget was not balanced under existing revenue, House and Senate budget leaders were forced to work more intensely to craft a balanced budget based on what revenue was available.

A gag order placed by Holden's administration restricted the level of communication between his office and the General Assembly. In addition to limiting the flow of information between Holden's office and legislators, the gag order created tension between the governor's office and both legislative chambers.

Senate President Pro Tem Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph, said the elevated level of communication maintained between the governor's office and legislative leaders can help prevent a repetition of the state budget communication breakdown that happened under Holden's administration.

"At this point, Gov. Nixon and members of the House and Senate leadership — as well as our Appropriations (Committee) chairs — have met, have pledged to work well together," Shields said. "I don't think you'll see a repeat of the situation under the Holden administration. Hopefully in these challenging times, we'll all figure out how to work together and pass a budget that's reflective of the situation we're in and do so in a responsible and timely fashion."

Other legislative leaders said Nixon has been communicating fairly well with them. House Speaker Ron Richard, R-Joplin, said he has been speaking with Nixon about economic development and investments, and Engler said he met with the governor on Monday afternoon to review the budget.

"He just told me some things about the budget — that he wouldn't be doing a mysterious budget, that it would be balanced, but it would be very difficult because there will be some bloodletting, unfortunately," Engler said.

LeVota said he will meet with Nixon on Tuesday morning to review the budget.

Rep. Chris Kelly, D-Columbia, said bipartisan cooperation on budget matters has been a priority for House leadership. Kelly, who served as the House's Budget Committee chairman from 1991 to 1994, said he has been in communication with current House Budget Committee Chairman Allen Icet, R-Wildwood.

Nixon did not consult or alert top state legislators last week before announcing his promise to recommend that higher education be withheld from any budget cuts. Should Nixon throw another such curve ball in his State of the State address on Tuesday evening, McElyea said the Republican Party would respond with a call for bipartisanship.

"We're going to respond as the people of Missouri expect us to respond, and that's with an outreached hand of bipartisanship — a hand reached out in collaboration and innovation and working together as the people expect us to," McElyea said. "Missourians elected us as a team to lead this state forward, and we'll work together."

Kinder, the only Republican elected to statewide office, will give the Republicans' response following Nixon's speech.

If Nixon makes any unexpected announcements, Richard said he would respond the same way he did when Nixon announced his higher education promise.

"I'll just make a note of it and ask that we communicate in an open manner," Richard said. "And that's what I'm looking forward to. I'm not going to try to throw rocks at a guy before he gives a speech.

"Let's hope for the best. We need to work together in the House and work together to get through this tough time."

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