Senate set for debate of budget, conference with House looms

Monday, April 12, 2010 | 9:09 p.m. CDT; updated 11:46 p.m. CDT, Monday, April 12, 2010

JEFFERSON CITY — The ranking Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee described the budget that will be taken up by the Senate Wednesday as "ugly" but said the committee had no choice.

"If the money's not there, we don't have a credit card," said Sen. Joan Bray, D-St. Louis County.

She said she is particularly concerned about the committee's nearly $20 million in cuts to the Department of Mental Health that she said will strip mental health services from many impoverished Missourians who don't meet Medicaid requirements.

The committee also made more than $100 million in cuts to K-12 education, eliminating the Career Ladder program and stripping nearly $14 million in funds from Parents as Teachers. Cuts made to higher education total $35 million, including a $15 million cut that would undo the tuition deal reached between Gov. Jay Nixon and Missouri's public college presidents in November.

The deal would freeze in-state undergraduate tuition next year in exchange for preserving roughly 95 percent of the funding for higher education.

Both State Budget Director Linda Luebbering and Nixon's spokesman Jack Cardetti emphasized that the governor hopes to preserve the deal.

Committee Chairman Rob Mayer, R-Dexter, who introduced the committee's cuts, said he has been working with Nixon's office to determine whether the original deal can be upheld.

Bray said she wondered whether Nixon would have made the deal if he had known the extent of the state's economic woes.

"That was last fall," Bray said, "and we've only gotten worse news."

State revenue has declined more than 13 percent in the first three months of this year.

Nearly $300 million separates the current versions of the House and Senate budget bills. Sen. Jim Lembke, R-St. Louis County, who sits on the Appropriations Committee, said he anticipates the conference committee between both chambers that will follow the Senate's passage of its budget will present a greater challenge than the upcoming Senate debate.

"As the Senate tradition goes, the majority, if not all, of the work is supposed to be done in committee," Lembke said.

Committee Chairman Sen. Rob Mayer, R-Dexter, said Monday he planned to meet later that day with House Budget Committee Chairman Allen Icet, R-Wildwood, to begin discussing differences between the two budgets.

Dozens of amendments were introduced to the floor during the House budget debate, and two members of the House, Rep. Tim Jones, R-St. Louis County, and Rep. Jeff Roorda, D-Barnhart, had to be physically restrained after trading barbs during debate preceding the final vote.

Mayer said he doesn't anticipate similar confrontations during the Senate debate.

"I'm sure there will be some healthy discussion. However, I don't expect the decorum to break down," he said.

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