JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri senators scoured over hundreds of moneysaving ideas submitted by citizens Tuesday, huddling in corporate-style brainstorming groups with a mission of staving off an impending financial crisis.
Senators canceled their typical schedule of formal debates and committee hearings and instead pulled out markers and large paper flip boards to whittle down the best of some 1,500 online suggestions for restructuring state government.
Each of the Senate's eight working groups was to come up with at least five recommendations by the end of the day for cutting expenses or boosting state revenues.
Missouri's proposed $23.8 billion budget for next year faces a shortfall of at least $200 million, due to declining tax revenues, and perhaps as much as $500 million if the state does not bank on getting additional aid from the federal government. The House was expected to begin debating that proposed budget later Tuesday.
But budget forecasters say an even larger shortfall could be looming for the 2012 fiscal year, when federal stimulus money used to plug financial holes runs out.
The ideas considered Tuesday included some fairly significant changes to Missouri government.
One suggestion would consolidate some of Missouri's 523 public school districts. The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education said it had identified 163 districts that have fewer than 300 enrolled students — making them potential targets to be merged with other school districts.
But Sen. Rita Heard Days, D-St. Louis, expressed concern that creating "mega school districts" might not be in the best interest of students.
Another proposal getting serious attention would reduce the state's prison rolls — which hover around 30,000 — by 2,000 people over the next two years, partly by diverting first-time nonviolent offenders to local probation or special treatment programs. That would allow the state to shut down a prison, netting $13 million in savings.
But St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch warned: "If we even suggest releasing violent offenders, there will be a great deal of resistance from prosecutors."
Yet another idea would allow tolls to be charged for special express lanes on urban highways, which would be built and managed by the private sector instead of the Missouri Department of Transportation.
Although statewide tolling authority has been rejected in the past by Missouri voters, MoDOT director Pete Rahn told lawmakers that the agency's attorneys believe the express-lane tolls could be authorized by the Legislature without need of a statewide ballot measure.
Other ideas were comparatively small but perhaps just as meaningful to some residents and state workers. Among them: eliminating or charging people for state highway maps and other materials currently printed and distributed for free by the transportation department. That could save the state $1.5 million.
Picking up on a frequent citizen suggestion, Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, asked the departments his working group examined to estimate potential savings from furloughing employees for a week or two. Lawmakers are to the point of "making the decision that has the least negative consequences," he said.
Some ideas focused on generating more revenue as opposed to cutting expenses. The four-person group examining Missouri's taxes structure discussed reviewing whether all of Missouri's 132 sales exemptions are still appropriate. They also discussed greater scrutiny for tax credits.
The Senate's brainstorming sessions attracted officials from all branches of government. Chief Justice William Ray Price Jr. and Supreme Court Judge Michael Wolff helped outline potential changes to prisons and courts. Gov. Jay Nixon's deputies and department directors divided themselves among the various groups.
"We want to assist you with reducing our expenses, increasing operating efficiencies: make cuts were necessary, promote better performance, reorganize where appropriate," said Nixon's Commissioner of Administration Kelvin Simmons. "We want to change things for the better."