Missouri House committee votes against stripping funds from prisons

Friday, February 19, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CST; updated 9:39 a.m. CDT, Monday, April 26, 2010

JEFFERSON CITY — A House committee voted against a bill stripping funds from prisons, part of a budget cut plan to help the governor keep his in-state tuition freeze promise. 

Last week, House Budget Chairman Allen Icet, R-St. Louis County, asked the six House appropriation committees to make five-percent cuts to their budgets. Gov. Jay Nixon's tuition plan requires Missouri's colleges to freeze in-state tuition in order to preserve 95 percent of government appropriations at the previous year's level. To execute the promise, Icet asked the six committees to spread the brunt of the cuts.

The House Public Safety and Corrections Appropriations Committee voted for Icet's $1.5 million cuts for public safety but voted against a bill cutting $19 million from the Corrections Department.

"Our issue is with today and dealing with the budget," Rep. Michael Brown, D-Jackson County, said.  "These cuts are too deep."

Brown is a member of the Public Safety and Corrections Appropriations Committee. He said the Corrections Department has faced continual budget cuts over the past four years, even though there has been an increase in the number of inmates in Missouri correctional facilities. Missouri currently has about 30,000 criminals incarcerated in prisons. Brown said the state is dealing with the highest number of prisoners it has ever had.

Rep. Chris Kelly, D-Columbia, said Icet's instruction to cut budgets is especially needed during the budget crunch.

"Here's the problem that Icet has: Nobody wants to make cuts, but we need to start thinking about this," Kelly said.

Kelly, who serves on the Budget Committee, said the main priority is to keep the budget balanced. 

"Rep. Icet and I both take that oath seriously," he said. "You can't spend more than you don't have."

Rep. Chris Carter, D-St. Louis City, said if the bill were to pass, the ramifications to Missouri correctional facilities would be great.

"You would have lost a lot of money to operate a correctional facility," Carter said. "With those cuts, it would have made the situation worse."

If a prison had to be closed, Carter said criminals of nonviolent crimes could be released to open room for violent criminals. Nonviolent crimes are crimes against property and can include embezzlement, counterfeiting or fraud.

In his State of the Judiciary speech earlier this month, Missouri Chief Justice William Ray Price Jr. said nonviolent criminals are overcrowding Missouri's prisons.

"Perhaps the biggest waste of resources in all of state government is the overincarceration of nonviolent offenders," Price said in the speech. "It is costing us billions of dollars, and it is not making a dent in crime."

But even if the state could consolidate prisons, Carter said cutting staff creates a dangerous environment for both guards and inmates.

A spokesperson at the Corrections Department said she could not comment and that her department director was out of the office.

After the six committees' budgets are finalized, they will go to the House Budget Committee. Although the appropriations committees can create their own budgets, the Budget Committee determines the final draft that goes to the full House for approval.

Rep. Dwight Scharnhorst, R-St. Louis County, chairs the Public Safety and Corrections Appropriations Committee. He said the committee needs to approach Icet before anything further can be decided.

"This is a serious, serious issue," Scharnhorst said. "It was my recommendation that we reject the amendment and talk to Icet."

Scharnhorst and the other committee members plan to speak with Icet on Monday or Tuesday, he said.


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