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ANALYSIS: More power in hands of House budget chair

Monday, March 16, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 10:24 p.m. CDT, Monday, March 16, 2009

JEFFERSON CITY — Twenty-nine members of the House Budget Committee met in a morning-to-midnight marathon in Hearing Room 3 to hash out the details of Missouri's $22.8 billion budget.

But the real work already had been done behind the closed doors of State Capitol Room 306.

That's the office of House Budget Committee Chairman Allen Icet, whose power over Missouri's money has grown stronger because of an evolution of House rules and tradition.

As the control wielded by the House budget chairman has risen, the ability of other lawmakers to influence the budget has declined. So has the ability of the general public to comment about the proposed budget.

Deliberation 'is so minimal'

Candy Young, a political science professor at Truman State University, has overseen the school's government internship program since 1991. She's appalled at the change in the way Missouri's budget is crafted.

"The level of deliberation compared to the level of deliberation in the early '90s is so minimal that it is really frightening," Young said.

According to the state constitution, Missouri's governor must submit an annual budget plan to the legislature. And lawmakers are barred by the constitution from passing most other spending bills until they act on the governor's budget recommendations.

As recently as a decade ago, the chairman of the House Budget Committee introduced the governor's budget plan as legislation. Those bills were referred to various House appropriations committees specializing in such areas as education, agriculture and social services.

If members of those specialized committees didn't agree with one of the governor's budget proposals, they had to get enough votes to amend the bill. The specialized committees then sent the budget bills to the House Budget Committee, which could make more changes before passing them to the House floor.

The point of change

Democrat Tim Green, who now is a senator from St. Louis, was the last House budget chairman to introduce the governor's budget as legislation in 2002. He also pushed for a rule change requiring lawmakers to cut from one part of the budget if they wanted to increase another part.

The next year, Republicans took control of the House and new budget chairman Carl Bearden, of St. Charles, took greater control of the budget process.

Bearden stopped introducing the governor's verbatim budget as legislation, instead using his own proposal as the initial budget bills. He also ended the practice of specialized appropriations committees amending the budget bills. Instead, he asked the committees to make mere recommendations.

Those changes were prompted partly by politics. Bearden said recently that he disagreed philosophically with the budget put forward by then-Democratic Gov. Bob Holden. He also believed the appropriation committees had become so cozy with their oversight subjects that they were hesitant to make cuts.

"They have a tendency over time to become advocates instead of appropriators," Bearden said.

In Bearden's footsteps

Subsequent Republican budget chairmen have built upon Bearden's precedent.

In 2005, then-House budget chairman Brad Lager (now a senator from Savannah) did not introduce his budget bills until March 30 — less than a week before the House Budget Committee began four days of hearings on the bills.

This year, Icet, R-Wildwood, introduced the last of his operating budget bills — for health, mental health and social services — on March 5. Six days later, the House Budget Committee considered, debated, amended and approved the entire budget in one long day of work.

Although the public had a general opportunity to testify previously to the House Budget Committee, they had no chance to comment after Icet introduced his actual budget proposal.

Democrats complained they also had little time to look it over.

"When you give a legislative body hundreds of millions of dollars in cuts to vital programs literally hours before they have to vote on them, they cannot reasonably be expected to make decisions, and the public doesn't have an opportunity for input," said Rep. Chris Kelly, D-Columbia, who served as House budget chairman in the 1990s, left office and then returned this year to the House.

Adding to Kelly's angst was the requirement for lawmakers to offset any spending amendment with an equal amount of cuts elsewhere in the budget.

That requirement allowed Icet to set a cap on the state budget when he introduced his bills. And it meant Democrats were prohibited from trying to spend more of the federal economic stimulus money than Icet had proposed.

He's not sorry

Icet makes no apologies for the power he has amassed.

"Historically, it's a matter of courtesy that the budget chairman introduces the governor's budget because the budget bills originate in the House," Icet said.

But Icet adds, "Why do you put something that you philosophically disagree with into your budget bill, and then you have to change your own budget bills. It really makes no sense to start that way."

Although the governor constitutionally must propose a budget, the legislature constitutionally must pass the budget. And ultimately, the governor can spend no more than the legislature allows.

 

"I don't think future budget chairmen will ever go back to introducing the governor's budget — it doesn't matter what party they are," Icet said.


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