The Missouri Senate’s “Rebooting Government” Work Day March 23 was time well spent. From the more than 1,500 ideas submitted, the work groups presented 18 pages of recommendations after a day of work group discussion.
Frankly, the process and product of the Rebooting Government Work Day exceeded my expectations. In my 30 years of following state legislatures, I had never seen a mid-session work day attempted.
The overall Rebooting goal is to identify budget-cutting options to fill the $500 million budget shortfall now expected for the fiscal year beginning this July. There are some good ideas here deserving wide discussion throughout Missouri. To promote discussion, below are my five best ideas, five interesting ideas and five not so good ideas.
Five Best Ideas
- The single biggest, and potentially best, idea was sentencing (incarceration, parole, and fines) reform. This set of ideas is estimated to save $39 million mostly by reducing the prison population and closing one prison. Additionally, increases in alternative sentencing and better probation and parole oversight could reduce repeat offenders yielding more state, family and societal benefits.
- Reducing the Department of Economic Development’s tax credits, an idea the senators seem happy to attribute to Gov. Jay Nixon, is estimated to save $314 million over time.
- Establishing High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) could generate revenue and be an experiment of residents' use and support of toll roads. Toll roads seem necessary for rebuilding our state highway system and an experiment in acceptance would be helpful.
- Consolidating departments, such as the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education with the Department of Higher Education and the not-discussed combination of the Department of Conservation with the Department of Natural Resources are not attention-getters but need to be considered periodically. Since these will require a constitutional amendment, the legislature should do it right and have an Interim Study Committee on Government Reorganization this summer. The last major reorganization of Missouri government was in 1974.
- Reviewing biodiesel and ethanol programs with a potential savings of $37.5 million is a good idea. These programs were adopted way too fast without adequate attention to secondary consequences.
Five Interesting ideas
- Conducting a comprehensive review of federally-funded programs, if it can be done without getting stuck on “anti-Washington” rhetoric has potential and should be explored judicially.
- Containing Medicaid and other health care costs will only become more important with the new federal law. Proper managed care should be considered with an estimated savings approaching $100 million.
- Establishing an Interim Committee on Optimal Tax Policy seems a wise way to consider small ticket items such as improving the tax collection process with the larger debate about the fair tax. The committee should start with the history and trends of Missouri taxing and spending.
- Redesigning state retirement programs seems necessary. The workforce is changing and so must the retirement system, but changes should not be a means of shifting labor costs on to employees.
- Charging rental, set-up and cleanup fees for the use of state Capitol (and other state government facilities) seems rather minor, but it would demonstrate to residents that there is no free lunch.
Five Not-so-Good Ideas
- Discontinuing the printing of the state manual (the Blue Book) and state maps to save $2 million is regrettable. Call me old-fashioned, but the Blue Book serves as a history of state government. Yes, if you know what you are looking for you can use an online state manual or state map but there is an education benefit for residents to see the manual and a map and say “Oh, I didn’t know state government funded parks” or “I didn’t know there were so many judges in Missouri.”
- Furloughing departments of Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources employees should be as a last resort. Unless involving piecemeal work where the workload can be reduced, furloughs usually result in the same volume of service with less attention to quality.
- Capping childhood services in the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to save up to $50 million should be a concern. In the past decade, there seems to be a consensus in education policy that pre-K education programs offer high returns for dollars invested.
- Reducing memberships, subscriptions and travel should not be automatic or it might prove to be short sighted. Elsewhere, the House has proposed canceling membership dues in national organizations for state governments such as the National Conference of State Legislatures. This is shirking not saving. Such associations are supported by all states and provide valuable information useful for state policy making.
- Consolidating K-12 school services and encouraging local counties to better coordinate services are not bad ideas — but administrative coordination is not costless. Centralized purchasing of standard products should not be allowed to lead to standardization of well-chosen local practices and procedures.
The Missouri Senate should be commended for proposing and holding the "Rebooting Government" project. Work group recommendations should be reviewed next session for legislative follow-up. Journalists, legislative candidates and citizens should remind legislators about these ideas.
Just as it is naïve to think that all 1,500 submitted ideas are the bright ideas of lone, idealistic residents realized while driving to work or walking their dogs, some of these "Rebooting" ideas will be pushed — some blocked — by more self-interested, professional interests. As in last week’s work sessions, many attendees at a so-called inegeneral meeting have specific interests they wish to further. Politics never sleeps.
David Webber is an associate professor of political science at MU. This article is presented courtesy of The Missouri Record, which carries Webber’s column each Tuesday.