Budget director says conference committee cuts are not enough

Monday, April 26, 2010 | 10:15 p.m. CDT; updated 9:14 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, April 27, 2010

JEFFERSON CITY — A joint legislative conference signed off Monday on more than $400 million in cuts to Gov. Jay Nixon's original budget recommendations, but the state budget director said these cuts likely aren't enough.

Director Linda Luebbering said it's "pretty close to definite" Nixon will have to cut money from next year's budget, possibly as early as May. Nixon said in March that his budget recommendation, which he introduced in January, would need to be cut by $500 million.

The Department of Mental Health was among the hardest hit by the budget cuts.

"It's pretty horrible," said Sen. Joan Bray, D-St. Louis County, who participated in the conference. "Closing emergency rooms at psychiatric facilities is a pretty dramatic thing to do. We're going to be having ramifications all over."

The Joint Conference Committee on Appropriations met to iron out differences between the House and Senate versions of the budget. Because the Senate had made deeper budget cuts, the Senate position was adopted on most items up for debate. This included cutting the Veterans Remembrance project, which paid for video recordings of interviews with Missouri veterans about their experiences and had been hotly contested in the House.

The Senate took what budget leaders described as a "global" approach to cuts, reducing funding for reimbursed expenses such as supply and travel by 10 to 20 percent across the board.

The Senate Appropriations Committee had met Nixon's target for cuts, but roughly $50 million of these cuts were restored on the Senate floor and in the conference committee, with most of the money going to restore Appropriations Committee cuts to higher education and the Career Ladder program, which gives bonuses for professional development and tutoring.

"We have compromised on a lot of issues to keep the process moving forward," said Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Rob Mayer, R-Dexter. "It is what it is."

House Budget Chair Allen Icet, R-Wildwood, said he was satisfied with the level of cuts reached by the committee, though he acknowledged that the budget likely isn't balanced.

Rep. Chris Kelly, D-Columbia, who participated in the conference, disagreed with Luebbering's claim about the likely need for withholds by Nixon.

Nixon's original recommendation included $300 million in anticipated federal funds that have still not materialized, which the governor now says he would like to put aside for use in the following year, when nearly $1 billion in federal stabilization funds expire.

"He doesn't have to cut to balance," Kelly said. "He has to cut for next year."

After several months of declining revenue, the state collected more than $100 million in tax revenue last Friday, which Mayer said made him optimistic about signs of economic recovery.

But Luebbering said the increased collection, which she said was mostly due to "catch-up," doesn't mean the economy has turned around yet.

"It wasn't because people are working more or buying stuff," she said.

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