JEFFERSON CITY— Missouri lawmakers will have a chance to put the state's money where their mouths are when they return this week from their annual spring break.
Legislators have been talking a lot about the need to make major cuts in state spending because of a financial crunch whose squeeze is expected to get even tighter in coming years.
Their chance to do so begins Monday as the House Budget Committee goes to work on the proposed 2011 budget. Despite their talk, there are some indications that the Republican-led House may not whack out as much spending as needed to balance the budget.
Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, acknowledged during the first week of March that the 2011 budget he recommended to legislators in January needs to be trimmed by about $500 million. Nixon cited a continued downturn in state tax revenues and uncertainty over when — or whether — Congress will authorize an extension of enhanced Medicaid payments from last year's stimulus package.
Nixon's budget banked on receiving a $300 million boost from that federal extension. Republican lawmakers repeatedly criticized that assumption; at least one House GOP leader termed it "funny money."
Nixon now has reversed himself, saying the $300 million should not be assumed in next year's budget and — if it comes — should be saved for use in the 2012 budget that is projected to be even tougher to balance.
But the response from House Republicans was somewhat confused.
"We weren't going to put the $300 million in anyway, were we Mr. Chairman?" House Speaker Ron Richard, R-Joplin,said at a news conference while pitching the topic to House Budget Chairman Allen Icet, R-Wildwood.
Icet emphasized: "We've always had a concern about whether to put that in the budget or not."
The House leaders made those comments on March 2, shortly after meeting privately with Nixon about the state's financial concerns.
Yet two days later, Icet introduced budget bills that nonetheless relied upon the $300 million of assumed federal funding. "That money may occur," Icet said in explaining the discrepancy between his actions and earlier statements.
Republican House leaders believe Nixon should be responsible for recommending how to close the projected $500 million gap in the original budget he recommended. So they aren't likely to do it for him by whacking $500 million during this week's budget committee hearings. Icet said there simply is not enough time to do so.
"We do believe it's up to the governor to give direction on where we go," said Icet, .
Nixon already met his constitutional duty to submit a budget plan to the legislature. He did so on Jan. 20. Nothing requires the governor to submit a new budget plan if the state's financial circumstances worsen during the course of a legislative session.
The constitution says it is the Legislature's responsibility to pass appropriation bills. The deadline this year is May 7.
After that, the governor can make line-item vetoes to reduce or eliminate spending for certain items, but the governor cannot add to the money in the legislature's budget. The governor also has the power to make midyear spending cuts if state revenues fall below expectations.
"If it's a two-step dance, the legislature has the first step and the governor has the second, according to the constitution," Nixon spokesman Jack Cardetti said.
That is to say: It's the legislature's turn to make some spending cuts and decisions.
Nixon provided some suggestions — though not enough to equal the $500 million gap — during a speech this past week. Some of those he can do on his own, such as selling state vehicles and laying off employees. Others will need legislative approval, such as reducing state holidays and biofuel subsidies. Still others will need voter approval to amend the constitution, such as merging the Department of Higher Education and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
Though not constitutionally required to do so, Cardetti said, Nixon is attempting to provide a blueprint for lawmakers to reduce the size and scope of state government.
Yet Republican House leaders are insisting upon more.
"Until we see the governor's line-by-line details of ways to shrink state government and bridge the $500 million gap in the governor's budget, we aren't confident that he has a plan to keep Missouri afloat as we face this severe budget crisis," Richard said in a written statement. "We are ready and willing to work in a bipartisan manner, but the ball is in his court."
Actually, the ball will be in the court of the House Budget Committee this week.
David A. Lieb has covered state government and politics for The Associated Press since 1995.