ANALYSIS: Rookie Missouri lawmakers skip statewide tour

Sunday, December 5, 2010 | 4:48 p.m. CST; updated 6:54 a.m. CST, Monday, December 6, 2010

JEFFERSON CITY — Their immediate predecessors toured universities, museums and even the St. Louis Rams' football stadium to learn the ins and outs of Missouri government. This year's class of incoming freshman lawmakers learned a key part about state government by staying put in the state Capitol and saving money.

Call it a tangible example of how Missouri budget troubles are playing out.

Expected to face another difficult state budget year, incoming Missouri lawmakers skipped a traditional bus tour of various state facilities, chopped down their standard orientation session and stuck to the Capitol. They spent a week in classroom sessions learning about legislative procedure, managing office staff, using their expense accounts, communicating with constituents and dealing with lobbyists.

And rather than the more costly notebooks and handouts provided in past years, the state provided manila file folders and relied upon the rookie legislators to take good notes.

"We really did try to cut costs wherever we could," House Clerk Adam Crumbliss said. He said the legislature was trying to lead by example as state agencies have been asked to make do with smaller budgets.

Or, to borrow from the parlance from many lawmakers who liken themselves to Missouri families balancing checkbooks and tightening their fiscal belts, the freshman legislators took a "staycation" to get acquainted with their new jobs rather than a more costly trip.

Wayne Wallingford, a Republican who will represent a district in Cape Girardeau, said that it would have been nice to see facilities across the state firsthand but that everyone needs to help out when budgets are tight.

"We can't expect other people to expect cuts in their budgets if we're not doing the same in ours," Wallingford said.

Every two years, legislative staff, former lawmakers and others teach the newly elected lawmakers about the nuts and bolts of state government and offer guidance on the details of serving in the legislature. In the past, that has included a tour to review various state facilities.

The House plans to work with state agencies to organize visits to facilities in Jefferson City when the rookies return to the Capitol in January for the start of the annual session. Officials said eliminating the statewide tour from the orientation has lowered the cost for this year's training session.

Eight years ago, freshmen lawmakers — whom the current rookies are replacing because of term limits — were far less stationary.

The state spent about $45,000 on lodging, meals and travel expenses for a group of 90 new legislators to visit National Guard facilities, universities, a Mississippi River port, the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis, and a state prison and mental health hospital in Fulton. During a half-day tour in Fulton, lawmakers saw prison crowding that forced inmates to sleep in heated tents or common areas with crumbling ceilings at the Fulton State Hospital. For some touring the central Missouri facilities, the presentations sniffed of a plea for more funding.

Even without the organized state tour, some of this year's freshmen said there have been plenty of people willing to talk about money.

"I don't want to spend three weeks getting told, 'Hey, give us state money,' when there is no state money . . . in every region. So I got saved from being bombarded," said Kurt Bahr, a Republican from O'Fallon.

Skipping the tours also gave the roughly 80 new members in the 163-member Missouri House a lesson on the types of decisions that await them as policymakers expect to face a budget hole of several hundred million dollars next year.

The state Office of Administration reported Thursday that state revenues so far are more than 3 percent higher than last year, but leaders still are preparing for more budget bloodletting in the spending plan to take effect in July.

In recent years, tight state budgets already have prompted cuts to schools for busing students, college scholarships and the state payroll. Some new construction projects have been canceled, and payment rates for drug and alcohol abuse counselors, psychologists and others serving the mentally ill, and in-home care providers for the disabled have been shrunk by 2 percent.

Probable House Speaker Steven Tilley said last week that budget difficulties can limit the menu of policy options available to lawmakers but also can create opportunities for people to implement their campaign rhetoric.

"We all ran on making sure we spend every dollar wisely, that we shrink the size of government, that we make government do more with less," said Tilley, R-Perryville.

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