Missouri House panel trims but doesn't close budget gap

Thursday, March 18, 2010 | 7:38 p.m. CDT; updated 9:43 p.m. CDT, Thursday, March 18, 2010

JEFFERSON CITY — A House committee reduced spending Thursday for some government services but failed to cut enough to cover a projected shortfall in Missouri's next budget.

After considering dozens of amendments, the House Budget Committee finished its work after cutting only about $55 million more from the proposed budget. That means more cuts likely will be needed when the spending plan heads to the House floor and then to the Senate.

House Budget Committee Chairman Allen Icet said he wasn't concerned that the proposed 2011 budget remained out-of-balance at this point.

"The key part is what is in the bills when they are placed on the governor's desk," said Icet, R-Wildwood. "This is a process."

Gov. Jay Nixon has said about $500 million needs to be trimmed from the nearly $23.9 billion budget plan he outlined in January.

About $200 million of that shortfall is due to declining state tax revenues.

The rest of the gap is based on an assumption that Missouri either will not receive — or will save for use in 2012 — $300 million of enhanced federal Medicaid payments. A bill providing states with that funding boost is pending in Congress.

Although Republican House leaders initially said they would not count on that money, their budget assumes Missouri will receive and spend the $300 million next year. The House budget plan would use that money to make payments to physicians, nursing homes and prisoners' health care.

Many of the amendments adopted Wednesday and Thursday by the House Budget Committee merely cut money from one area, such as state computer services, and transferred it to another, such as community health care centers. While one program won, another lost, and the bottom line remained the same.

"All we're doing is just moving money around," said committee member Rep. Rob Schaaf, R-St. Joseph. "We don't seem to have the ability to pass any significant cuts here," he added later.

While acknowledging the need for cuts, House Budget Committee members were reluctant to dig too deeply.

They defeated Schaaf's attempt to cut $88 million in basic aid to public schools, $27 million from the Parents as Teachers program that sends trained mentors into the homes of infants and preschoolers, and $12 million from the Career Ladder program that allows teachers to earn extra money for performing additional duties.

The Republican-led committee also drew the line on how much to cut from the Legislature's own budget.

The House already has cut back on cell phone reimbursements, plans to curtail its free coffee and bottled water next year and on Thursday approved an amendment to eliminate 20 House staff positions (16 of which already are vacant).

But Republicans on the committee defeated Democratic attempts to cut more from the House's budget and spend the money on ethics investigators, crisis care for children or vocational rehabilitation services.

Icet equated some of the amendments targeting House expenses to a "circus," adding he doesn't want to cut so much that lawmakers can no longer effectively represent their constituents.

Rep. Ryan Silvey, R-Kansas City, was one of the few lawmakers to make cuts without redirecting the money elsewhere. He successfully trimmed about $1.6 million from several state agencies — an amount equal to half of what they have spent so far this year on food, membership dues and meetings. Silvey acknowledged some of those expenses are justified but said it is important for government itself to trim back if it is going to cut services to residents.

"The bureaucracy of government, the grinding gears of government, appears to be acting in a bubble as if nothing is wrong," Silvey said.

Debate generally focused on one-third of the overall budget — the roughly $8 billion in general state tax revenues over which lawmakers have the greatest control. Money that comes from the federal government or other sources, such as motor fuel taxes, often is dedicated to particular purposes and cannot be shifted to cover shortfalls in other areas.

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Layton Light March 18, 2010 | 11:44 p.m.

"The House already has cut back on cell phone reimbursements, plans to curtail its free coffee and bottled water next year and on Thursday approved an amendment to eliminate 20 House staff positions (16 of which already are vacant)."

What impressive sacrifices by our fearless leaders! They're really good at cutting the feet out from under state workers who are already grossly underpaid, but when it comes to them, it's; "Well I guess I can get my own bottled water."

How about we go to a unicameral legislature and axe about 163 of you? We'd probably have a budget surplus by the time you figured the savings from all of the staff, resources, paperwork, retirements, state license plates, per diem, health care, etc. etc. And just think of the savings in needless legislation!

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