UPDATE: Hundreds give budget-cutting tips to Missouri lawmakers

Wednesday, March 17, 2010 | 9:14 p.m. CDT

JEFFERSON CITY — Hundreds of Missourians have chipped in their own suggestions for closing a state budget deficit — including four-day work weeks, firing some lawmakers and taxing marijuana to generate funds.

The ideas submitted to a special Senate Web site were released to reporters Wednesday. Senators plan to break into groups next week and dig into the proposals. They have scheduled a rare break from daily floor debates.

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon has cut more than $850 million from a $23.7 billion budget. Last week, Nixon outlined additional ideas — eliminating 1,000 state jobs, half the state's primary vehicle fleet and all state scholarships for students at private colleges — to help close an expected $500 million gap in next year's proposed budget.

The Senate set up a special Web site called "Rebooting Government" to solicit ideas from the state's residents.

Numerous people suggested reducing the size of the legislature and its staff, trimming middle management in agencies, switching to a four-day work week for state employees and requiring furloughs.

Some of the most specific ideas came from state employees. A woman who works in the Division of Professional Registration, for example, suggested that people could empty their trash instead of paying a cleaning crew to do so. Another state employee calculated the state could save around $1 million a year by making use of energy-saving functions on computers, instead of leaving them on overnight.

Missourians called for replacing the state income tax with an expanded sales tax.

Their suggestions also included merging some of the state's 523 public school districts, stopping the use of salt on icy roads during winter and selling advertising space on interstate highway overpasses like at auto race tracks. Several people suggested turning Interstate 70 from Kansas City to St. Louis and Interstate 44 from Joplin to St. Louis into toll roads.

One woman from Neosho suggested schools could save money if senior citizens were paid a small stipend — or given a free school meal — in exchange for working in cafeterias or tutoring children.

Many suggested that the state continue charging for two license plates, while only giving motorists one.

Other proposals were even bolder, like the suggestion of legalizing and taxing marijuana — an idea that comes as the House and Senate have each passed versions of a bill criminalizing synthetic marijuana and defeated attempts to legalize medical marijuana.

Another suggestion for shrinking government that came from the public: eliminating driver's licenses.

Nixon has suggested 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 to save money.

While the Senate sifts through cost-cutting tips, the House budget writers were to start on Wednesday night debating a budget that takes effect July 1. Budget Committee Chairman Allen Icet told reporters that he expects significant spending cuts but has not set a target for how much he wants to slash.

"We need to cut hundreds of millions of dollar this year and hundreds of millions of dollars next year," said Icet, R-Wildwood.

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.

Another plan suggests that lawmakers cut office expenses to hire two new investigators for the Missouri Ethics Commission.

The House also plans to forego state-funded travel outside Missouri and lawmakers will no longer get reimbursed for using their personal cell phones to conduct state business.

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

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.

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