21st District primary candidates offer contrasting solutions to budget woes

Monday, July 26, 2010 | 5:21 p.m. CDT; updated 11:04 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 27, 2010

COLUMBIA — As Missouri struggles to find balance in its annual budgets, the three candidates for the 21st District seat in the Missouri House of Representatives have distinctly different ideas for how to fill the gap.

Because the budget process begins in the House, it's important that state representatives bring some ideas to the table for how to create a balanced budget. In the 21st District, John Cauthorn and Mike Becker are competing for the Republican nomination in the Aug. 3 primary election, but they have quite different proposals for how to solve the budget problem: Cauthorn would cut programs, and Becker would raise taxes.

Cauthorn prefers that the state simply cut the things it can no longer afford.

“A lot of programs were created in the good years that we can’t sustain,” Cauthorn said. “Sometimes we have to learn to live within our means. We have to really fine-tune state government money in dealing with issues and helping people.”

Tax credits are at the top of Cauthorn's chopping block, along with some social programs. He also would seek to pare back the number of government jobs.

"We need to make sure they are working and returning value to the community," Cauthorn said of state tax credits, such as those for historic preservation, housing or economic development. "It's three or four hundred million dollars that's going out, and the state has liability for that."

Cauthorn said the state also spends too much on social programs.

“I think what’s eating up our tax dollars for education and other things, and helping those who truly need help, is a lot of our social issues,” Cauthorn said. “We’ve got ladies that work at our church that work at the crisis center, and they’re funded by grants and things. There are just all kinds of things, socially, that are just costing us tremendous amounts of money.”

Beyond that, Cauthorn doesn’t yet have a specific list of programs that could be cut. However, Cauthorn knows what he wants to save.

“I think in the list of priorities, government should provide certain services, and the education of kids is one of those services that we made a commitment to,” he said.

If nothing else, Cauthorn is sure that raising taxes is something he won’t support.

“Any major tax increases will have to come from the people,” Cauthorn said. “And I’m not sure that the people will support that. I don’t mind letting the public vote on things, but as far as coming out and being supportive of tax increases, no.”

Becker, however, said raising taxes is the tried-and-true answer to the state’s budget problems.

“People don’t want to say the word ‘tax,’” Becker said at the League of Women Voters forum in Columbia on July 14. “Whatever you call it, we’re going to have to redo, rethink, re-evaluate how we see our taxation system in this state. Some say flat tax, some say let’s tax the rich, let’s tax the businesses.”

Campaigning as a champion for businesses, Becker said his tax increases would not target them.

“Our businesses, all they do is ... they pass their increases on to us, to a point,” he said. “Past that point, they lose money, and we cannot afford to lose businesses in our community ... We must always remember that a sick business community does not produce more jobs, thus a loss in income taxes on money for the services we demand of our government.”

Instead, Becker said, he suggests a one-half percent flat tax for three years, either as a sales tax or added onto the personal income tax. The only business tax he proposes is a new sales tax on online purchases.

"I would like to see the Internet sales from out-of-state buyers taxed at the same rate as Missouri citizens are required to pay," Becker said.

Although Becker acknowledged that higher taxes aren't wildly popular, he said it's the only proven solution for balancing the budget.

"It works," he said. "Anything else is a sleight-of-hand trick. In the past when you took from Peter and gave to Paul, someone was always shortchanged."

While raising taxes is Becker's first option, he said he is open to other ideas that have succeeded in the past.

"I will not go for any parlor tricks when it comes to our well-being," Becker said. As a last resort, he said, he might consider cutting social programs, but he's reluctant to do so because that would cost jobs. He does, however, believe the state could trim back on administrative workers.

Becker said he would cut "only those programs that do nothing to improve the health or well-being of the good people of Missouri."

Kelly Schultz, a Democrat, is running unopposed in the primary. In the November general election, she'll compete with the Republican primary winner for the 21st District seat, which is being vacated by Steve Hobbs, R-Mexico.

Schultz said she is willing to make the difficult choices about what must go to balance the budget.

"We have really cut to the bone in some of the programs and services at the state level," she said. "There are going to be some very painful decisions that will have to be made next year.

"I will always choose [to save] the direct services over administrative costs. For example, we had a program where someone would call Medicaid recipients to ask if they need help finding a doctor. I would choose to cut that as opposed to cutting mental health providers that are in our schools helping with our children's mental health needs."

Schultz said she supports some tax credits, such as those that brought IBM to Columbia and Mid-America Brick to Mexico. Still, she said she believes there is some waste in the system.

"One of the things I would support doing is reviewing every single tax credit and making sure we're getting the most for our money," Schultz said. "And that includes charitable tax credits, too."

Higher taxes are not on the horizon for Schultz.

"Missourians have been clear: they do not want to raise their taxes."

Between the loss of expected federal funding and declining general revenue collections, more than $900 million had to be cut from Missouri’s fiscal 2010 budget, which ended June 30.

According to a news release from state budget director Linda Luebbering in May, about $350 million must be cut from the budget for the 2011 year, which began July 1. Gov. Jay Nixon responded by trimming down education funding in June.

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