JEFFERSON CITY — Last week, the Missouri House passed its version of the state's budget — a culmination of nearly two months of debate and revision to Gov. Eric Greitens' initial proposal. By the end of the week, Senate Appropriations Chair Sen. Dan Brown, R-Rolla, was already pointing out potential changes he and his colleagues in the Senate will make in a series of meetings this week.
The following Tuesday, Senate appropriations met at 8:30 a.m. to begin that process.
Such is the meticulous process of creating Missouri's $27 billion spending blueprint. The budget evolves at each stage of the process. But what can't and will not change, though, are two things: There must be nearly half a billion in cuts from current spending levels, and it has to be on Greitens' desk by May 5.
The budget has come a long way. Its earliest iteration was just two pages. Near the bottom of the page, printed in bold, was the number that has driven months of cuts and deliberations included in the now several hundred page budget. The line read "ending cash balance," and to its right was the figure: -$456,355,126 — the projected deficit Missouri was facing in the coming year.
Slow revenue growth and rising health costs have wreaked havoc on Missouri's budget. And though revenues have risen in the few months since that original deficit number was released, Missouri is still facing a shortage. In each budget hearing and floor debate, the spirit of the bolded number still drives each and every conversation.
In February, almost a month later than is traditional, Greitens released his budget. That original bleak report could be felt through the 9 percent core budget cut to universities; the loss of 188 state jobs; the $36 million cut from K-12 transportation; the $52 million cut to in-home nursing care for seniors.
In his budget announcement in Nixa, Missouri, Greitens characterized the cuts as necessary, blaming politicians and special interests for the budget situation enumerated on those first two pages.
"Too often, people in government forget who they serve," he said. "Career politicians often talk about what they want and forget about what the people need. Too often, politicians believe the taxpayer money is their money, doling it out to special interests."
Since receiving the governor's budget two months ago, the House budget committee and subcommittees have poured hundreds of hours into crafting the budget. The committee version was then sent to the full floor last week, where tweaks were made before the budget was voted out of the Missouri House on Thursday.
Unlike on the federal level, Missouri has a constitutional requirement that the budget be balanced, meaning expenditures may not exceed revenues. Because of this, the governor's budget and the House budget totals do not significantly differ. As of now, the two budgets are $24.6 million apart, and the House Budget Chairman, Rep. Scott Fitzpatrick, R-Shell Knob, expects the final version and the governor's budget to differ by only about $10 million.
Because of this requirement, any differences between the budget drafts means that another program has to be sacrificed.
For example, the House version spends $70-plus million more than the governor's budget on K-12 education and transportation. To pay for these additional funds for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, the House had to cut several other items included in Greitens' budget. According to Fitzpatrick, the education funding was paid for by cuts to Missouri's statewide employee benefits, healthcare and the Missouri Technology corporation, a public-private partnership aimed at encouraging growth in the emerging technology sector.
Also included in the House budget is $22 million in funding respite for universities, reducing the core cuts from 9 to 6.5 percent. The University of Missouri System, though, did not receive this restoration to its core budget, instead seeing the new money go to cooperative programs. According to a UM spokesman, the system is not happy about this.
In addition to higher education funding, the House also looked to plug Greitens' proposed $52 million cut to an in-home nursing program by repealing a tax-credit for seniors who are renting a home. The bill carrying this repeal, sponsored by Fitzpatrick, passed by a razor-thin margin in the House. Many on the House floor decried that cutting one senior benefit to fund another is a false choice .
Yesterday, the budget began its trek through the Senate, starting with the Senate appropriations committee, chaired by Brown. This process gives the Senate an opportunity to make changes to the bill. In a press conference on Thursday, Brown indicated that there will be several.
He also pointed to the House's decision to fully fund the Foundation Formula, a K-12 funding program passed in 2005. The formula takes into account factors like daily attendance and local cost of living when calculating the amount of state funding each school will receive. The goal is to provide poor and rural school districts with funding on par with wealthier schools.
Brown said if the current funding recommended by the House stays in the budget, early childhood education programs written in the bill would automatically kick in next year and would have to be paid for.
"If we fully fund the formula," said Brown, "and we create a $62 million hole for next year in public education, we haven't done a lot of favors to people."
He said Sen. Jay Wasson, R-Nixa, is working on a bill that would phase in the amount of children receiving the early childhood education, which would spread the cost out and lessen the fiscal load.
Fitzpatrick disagrees with that approach.
"I don't think we should be afraid of fully funding the formula because of a bill that we passed," he said. "How do I go home and explain to my constituents that we didn't fully fund the formula because we didn't want to fund a bill we passed years ago?"
And while Brown has signaled support for the Fitzpatrick's tax-credit repeal bill, he admitted that some Senate members are strongly opposed.
The General Assembly has 14 legislative days to get the budget to Greitens' desk by the constitutional deadline of May 5. In the relatively short span, the budget must go through the Senate budget committee; be debated and amended in the Senate (last week, filibusters largely held the Senate at a standstill for two days); approved by the Senate; get sent to a conference committee where changes are reconciled between the House and Senate; be passed by again by the House and Senate; and finally, get signed by the governor.
Supervising editor is Mark Horvit, email@example.com.