Missouri lawmakers look at cutting own budgets

Wednesday, March 17, 2010 | 5:26 p.m. CDT

JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri lawmakers who are considering whether to lay off state workers, eliminate state programs and combine state agencies to close huge budget deficits have proposed some pain for themselves by giving up their coffee and cell phones while traveling less.

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon last week cut an additional $126 million from the state's budget and proposed to dig even deeper by eliminating 1,000 state jobs, half the state's primary vehicle fleet and all state scholarships for students at private colleges. The Democratic governor this year has cut more than $850 million from a $23.7 billion budget. Nixon said he expects a $500 million gap in the budget proposed for next year.

The budget troubles have lawmakers scrambling for loose change and searching for cheaper ways to operate state government.

Budget writers have proposed cutting $25,000 used by the House for brewing coffee and providing bottled water from the budget taking effect July 1. House members also are planning to forego state-funded travel outside Missouri and will no longer get reimbursed for using their personal cell phones to conduct state business.

House Administration and Accounts Committee Chairman Kenny Jones said Tuesday that cell phone plans are relatively cheap and that most lawmakers are likely to buy their own cell phone no matter what, so it did not seem fair for the state to continue picking up part of the cost.

"I think it lets people know that we are cognizant of the downturn in the economy," said Jones, R-California.

He added, "We know the situation is really grim at this point."

The House also is cutting back on lawmakers' official out-of-state travel. Jones said the GOP is not allowing its members to bill the state for their out-of-state travel. House Democrats are urging their members to be judicious and particularly mindful of Missouri's budget troubles before taking trips.

Rep. J.C. Kuessner, D-Eminence, said he is not aware of any Democrats who have filed travel bills. He said that with state budget cuts causing real effects for Missourians, it is particularly important for lawmakers to run their offices frugally.

"A common cry out there is, 'If you're asking us to live on less, what are you all doing? What pain are you feeling?'" said Kuessner, a House Democratic leader.

The House estimates it will save $55,000 by not reimbursing cell phones, $242,000 by scrapping its Legislative Budget Office and an unknown amount by restricting travel.

From next year's budget the House has booked around a half-million dollars in savings. That covers $100,000 to $200,000 by not hiring additional staff to handle legislative redistricting after the census and $345,000 by skipping membership dues in national organizations for state governments such as the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Senators, meanwhile, are planning to dig headlong into re-forming state government and have scheduled a rare break from daily floor debates. Instead senators will meet in small groups Tuesday to consider hundreds of proposals submitted by the public on ways to shrink government.

Senate President Pro Tem Charlie Shields said the chamber's 34 members will be divided into eight groups of four — with Shields and the chamber's top Democrat shuffling among the groups. Each group will be responsible for coming up with five reasonable ideas in various subjects from the more than 800 suggestions submitted through a special Senate Web site.

Shields, R-St. Joseph, said lawmakers need to be willing to go after "sacred cows" and reconsider how government operates.

"We probably have a state government that we cannot sustain," he said.

The governor during a speech last week in Springfield called for consolidating the Department of Higher Education and Department of Elementary and Secondary Education into one agency and combining the State Highway Patrol and State Water Patrol into a single law enforcement agency.

Nixon in a written statement praised senators for taking action and "stepping forward and joining in a bipartisan effort to deliver Missourians a government they can afford, while providing the services they need."

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