WHAT OTHERS SAY: Senate has work ahead to fix bad Missouri budget plan

Monday, March 19, 2012 | 10:30 a.m. CDT

When it comes to budget matters, the Missouri House is playing a game of craps. To bring balance to the documents that ultimately outline how the state spends taxpayers' money, House leaders are tossing the dice against the Capitol wall and hoping the numbers add up.

They won't.

When lawmakers return from their spring break today, among their first tasks will be for the House to give final approval to the documents the House Budget Committee has put together under the leadership of Chairman Ryan Silvey, R-Kansas City. Then the budget goes to the Senate so that the grownups can pull out the calculators, roll up their sleeves and do the real work.

The first thing the Senate will find is that House GOP leaders have ignored the demand they gave to Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon: Don't give us a budget based on assumptions tied to legislation that hadn't yet passed.

In the budget that is awaiting House floor debate, Republicans did just that. When the numbers didn't balance, they invented new ones to make things look better.

Some of the funding in Mr. Nixon's budget came from an estimate of lottery revenue. House lawmakers simply added $11.5 million to those estimates — which came from lottery officials — so they didn't have to make tough decisions. That's $11.5 million out of thin air. Pretty good trick.

Also, lawmakers decided to undo Mr. Nixon's proposed cuts to higher education. We've got no disagreement there. But for such an action to be more than a political ploy, the money has to come from somewhere. Lawmakers could have considered any number of revenue-enhancing possibilities, from the low-hanging fruit of collecting sales taxes on Internet purchases, just like purchases made on Main Street, or raising the state's lowest-in-the-nation cigarette tax, or reducing any number of corporate tax breaks.

No. They chose to take the money from a health care program for the blind. They did so without a hearing. They still haven't given advocates of blind Missourians the opportunity to make their case.

In doing so, they handed Mr. Nixon an easy political victory on a silver platter. Mr. Nixon has been traveling the state recently with advocates for blind Missourians decrying the insensitive cuts to a program that has existed since 1967 and even survived the heartless Medicaid cuts Republicans engineered in 2005.

"It's just dead wrong," Mr. Nixon said last week of the cuts to blind health care.

He's right, of course, although his leadership would have more meaning if he, too, would ditch his "no new taxes" pledge and make a commitment to at least return higher education to the meager funding levels that existed in 2001.

What the Senate should do is put everything on the table. Compare health care programs with education funding and corporate tax handouts, and set the state's priorities accordingly. They should examine Missouri's pitifully low ranking nationally in several tax categories and consider that some new revenue should be part of the picture.

If Missouri's budget situation is so dire that the only places left to cut are health care for the blind or education of our future workforce, what does that say about our state?

Copyright St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Reprinted with permission.

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