JEFFERSON CITY — Nine fiscally conservative Republican senators who stalled debate on Missouri's proposed budget this past week claimed it spent too much, relied too heavily on one-time revenues and needed a structural overhaul.
They won about a dozen concessions from Republican leaders before finally allowing the budget to pass.
The end result?
The budget plan, which entered Senate debate with a projected $16 million balance in the general revenue fund, now has a $4 million shortfall.
So much for fiscal conservatism.
The Missouri Senate's unusual — and some say, unprecedented — budget debate had little to do with bold attempts to slash spending in the $24 billion plan for the fiscal year that starts July 1. Instead, it revealed the depth of the personality-driven divisions in the Republican-led Senate and illustrated how nine individuals with various personal agendas can band together to accomplish what none of them had been successful in achieving on their own.
They succeeded, for example, in stripping out $50 million in federal grants for a new Medicaid computer system because of fears it could pave the way to implement part of President Barack Obama's health care law.
But some of their changes were mere money swaps, with no effect on the bottom line.
For example, the Senate Appropriations Committee — led by Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia — had consolidated the state's lottery revenues to go to K-12 public schools, instead of allotting a share to public colleges and universities. Schaefer said it was simpler that way. What colleges didn't get from lottery proceeds, they would still get from general state revenues.
But upon the group's demand, the lottery money was again split among lower and higher education. Sen. Jim Lembke, R-St. Louis County, counted that as a victory, because schools would be less reliant on the sale of lottery tickets.
The group also successfully reversed an Appropriations Committee decision that had transferred $5 million for job-training programs from the Department of Economic Development to community colleges, which Schaefer said are more directly involved in training people for work. Sen. Will Kraus, R-Lee's Summit, who pushed for that decision to be reversed, explained that it could have severed job-training contracts with businesses in his hometown.
Similarly, the group succeeded in undoing a decision by the Schaefer-led committee that had eliminated funding for a preschool grant program and transferred it to the Parents as Teachers early childhood development initiative. Sen. Brad Lager, R-Savannah, who included that item on the list of demands, explained that the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education already has a plan to phase out the grants, which some preschools have come to depend upon.
In each of the cases, "I don't think it was a reduction of spending, I think it was a prioritization of spending," Lager said.
Other changes sought by the coalition of senators stemmed from grievances about particular state policies or personnel.
For example, coalition member Sen. Luann Ridgeway, R-Smithville, succeeded in cutting $300,000 from both the state Parks Division and the Office of Administration, which awards state contracts. The intent was to express displeasure that contracts for park furnishings, such as picnic tables and benches, have gone to an out-of-state company instead of Missouri firms.
The group of senators successfully inserted wording into the budget prohibiting money from going to the Sue Shear Institute for Women in Public Life at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Sen. Jane Cunningham, R-St. Louis County, has complained for a decade that the institute churns out liberal trainees for Democrats.
The group also prevailed in barring money from being used to implement a quality rating system for preschools and child-care centers. Cunningham, Ridgeway and others are particularly upset about one woman — employed by both the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and the University of Missouri-Columbia — whom they blame for pushing the initiative administratively despite the fact it has failed to pass the Legislature.
The budget holdup was unusual in the Senate, which traditionally defers to the decisions of the Senate Appropriations Committee chairman. But the dissident senators complained that Schaefer was less willing to address the concerns of rank-and-file senators than past chairmen.
"It's the first time in my 12 years (in the House and Senate) that we've ever had an appropriations chair that has — in the vernacular of 'The Rock' in WWE wrestling — been smacked down," said Sen. Jason Crowell, R-Cape Girardeau, a leader of the nine budget-blockers.
Yet the "gang of nine" — as one frustrated senator called them — suffered its own setback. The group's effort to eliminate a 2 percent pay raise for about 46,000 state employees narrowly failed. That meant there were no savings to offset the additional expenses when several of the dissident senators provided the winning margin to restore funding for a blind health care program.
That ultimately is why the budget's general revenue spending ended up in the red.
Schaefer was frustrated by the whole turn of events.
"It's ironic that those that supposedly were making what really was an unprecedented move on the floor — claiming to be fiscally conservative — are the ones who actually knocked the budget out of balance," Schaefer said.