Missouri House trims governor's travel budget

Tuesday, March 29, 2011 | 6:43 p.m. CDT; updated 2:14 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, March 30, 2011

JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri's House voted to strip Gov. Jay Nixon of additional travel funds before giving first-round approval to the 2012 budget.

Shortly after he took office, Nixon began charging his travel to other state agencies instead of his own office's budget.

In response, leaders from both sides of the aisle supported a House Budget Committee plan to block the governor from using other agencies' funds to finance his travel. As part of the plan, the committee approved an increase in the governor's budget to cover travel costs.

But the House voted to cut out that extra travel money, stripping the $500,000 from the governor's budget recommended by the House Budget Committee.

The House voted to give that extra money for a school dropout prevention program.

Rep. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis, offered the amendment and said the House needed to address the problem of students dropping out of school.

"When those children that have dropped out go out in those streets, they are committing crimes in the worst way, and we are the ones that have to pay for it when they go into the penal system," Nasheed said.

Nixon previously eliminated the dropout prevention program from this year's budget. Nasheed said there is a "silent epidemic" and no one is paying attention.

Rep. Chris Kelly, D-Columbia, opposed the amendment and said the governor needs to be able to travel.

House Budget Committee Chair Ryan Silvey, R-Kansas City, who had initially put the additional travel money into Nixon's budget, supported Nasheed.

"We have got a pretty simple choice here. Do we let the governor continue flying around excessively on the state plane or do we help kids in inner-city St. Louis, who need a leg up?" Silvey said.

The governor's spokesman, Scott Holste, said Nixon was traveling in the St. Louis area talking about unrelated issues when the House vote was taken. The governor, he said, would give the budget a "fair review" when it clears the legislature.

Kelly also criticized his colleagues for supporting the amendment.

"This is a manipulation of the governor's office and a manipulation of these kids. ... We should not drag the budget process into the mud and not drag these children with us," Kelly said.

Nasheed's amendment passed 118-37.

The House also considered an amendment to remove funds from Republican Auditor Tom Schweich's office. The auditor has added additional staff positions this year and has requested additional funding for his office through a separate appropriations bill. Republicans said this was not the time to criticize the auditor's budget because his office received the same core decrease as every other statewide elected official. Democrats, though, said it was inappropriate for the auditor to ask for more money given the state's budget situation.

The motion was defeated 99-56 on a near party-line vote.

Republican House members also went after the employees of statewide elected officials. Rep. Casey Guernsey, R-Bethany, offered an amendment preventing the salary of any statewide employee from exceeding $86,500. Guernsey said the governor's office has six employees currently making more than $100,000.

"Across the board, it is a good policy for us to bring those salary levels down," Guernsey said.

Guernsey's amendment passed 119-35.

Kelly also presented an amendment that would add $12 million to a program called "Preparing to Care," which provides grants for nursing students and other medical technicians who agree to work in areas of medical need.

Except for the medical-student grant increase and restrictions on the governor's travel budget, the House-passed plan largely mirrors the governor's original budget recommendations.

However, Rep. Sara Lampe, D-Springfield, warned that reductions in the budget would be felt by all Missourians.

"This budget falls well short of providing services that are needed by Missourians. The budget falls short not because of inappropriate decisions made in this year's budget process but because of inadequate revenue," Lampe said.

Missouri's budget approved by the House includes a 7 percent reduction in higher education spending and a $200 million shortfall in the Foundation Formula, which determines funding for school districts.

One of the largest increases would be in Medicaid, which provides health care coverage for lower-income people. Republican budget leaders have acknowledged that federal requirements force the state into expanding the Medicaid budget.

The 13 operating budget bills face one more House vote before going to the Senate.

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