House divided as budget debate set to begin

Monday, March 22, 2010 | 9:23 p.m. CDT; updated 10:03 p.m. CDT, Monday, March 22, 2010

JEFFERSON CITY — A flurry of budget amendments are being prepared by House Democrats in anticipation for floor debate Tuesday, a member of the House Budget Committee said.

The House Rules Committee approved the budget bills Monday, sending the measure to the floor. The vote, however, was split according to party lines, Rep. Chris Kelly, D-Columbia, said. Democrats unanimously were opposed to it, he said, because of concerns that the proposed budget is not balanced.

Kelly, a member of the Budget Committee, said he would not vote for the budget in its current form, but that could change. He said he is helping several fellow House Democrats craft budget amendments, though he is unsure if he will introduce any himself. 

Gov. Jay Nixon has previously said next year's budget will likely need to be cut by roughly half a billion dollars, a figure which includes $300 million in federal stabilization funds that have not been fully approved by Congress and an anticipated decline next year's revenue estimate.

The federal funds were approved in separate bills in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. If the money does materialize, Nixon's Budget Office has said it would prefer to put it aside for the 2012 budget, when nearly a billion dollars in federal stabilization funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act expire.

The Missouri budget that will be introduced in the House on Tuesday includes the $300 million in federal funds and does not make the full amount of cuts that Nixon's office expects to be necessary.

Nixon's budget recommendations, released in January, had included these funds as part of the state's General Revenue pool. House Budget Committee Chairman Allen Icet, R-Wildwood, has identified the anticipated federal money separately in the proposed budget to provide an "audit path" of how it is spent.

Icet would use the federal money for required state expenses, specifically health care expenses for Missouri's prisoners and Medicaid fees for doctors and nurses.

If the governor decides to not use the federal money in this budget and it passes as Icet is proposing it, money will have to be cut from areas to cover these expenses.

Previously, Icet and other Republican leaders criticized Nixon for including the funds in his budget recommendation, but Icet said he is now more confident the funds will arrive.

He said he hopes the House will approve its version of the budget by the end of this week, so the Senate Appropriations Committee can begin to consider it next week.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Rob Mayer, R-Dexter, said he thinks the Senate will cut the amount suggested by Nixon, even if the House version contains those funds.

"We understand the budget they send down may not be balanced," he said. "We're working to find the $500 million of reductions."

Meanwhile, the Senate will convene eight working groups Tuesday to consider more than 1,500 suggestions to streamline state government sent to the Senate by Missouri residents. The ideas were solicited as part of the Senate's Rebooting Government campaign.

Mayer said the suggestions may have an impact on the future but wouldn't likely affect budget considerations for next fiscal year, the period under consideration.

He said he anticipates healthy debate within the Appropriations Committee but he hopes that informal discussions he's had with several committee members will aid the process.

Rep. Leonard Hughes, D-Jackson County, who sits on the House Budget Committee, said he was not pleased with the budget that came out of the committee.

Asked whether he thought the final House vote on the budget would be split along party lines, as it was in the Rules Committee on Monday, Hughes said it was likely.

"Refer to history, and let that be your guide."

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