As state lawmakers gather Monday to resume their legislative session, they’ll be considering a budget that would cut hundreds of millions of dollars from higher education and many other state services for the coming year.
Whether they can do that remains to be seen.
"We are making every effort to complete the budget by the May 8 constitutional deadline," said Sen. Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, in an email response while the Senate Republican caucus was having a confidential conference meeting Friday.
Even with those cuts taken from the original spending proposal unveiled in January, the latest version of the budget falls well short of the $1 billion shortfall that Gov. Mike Parson has said is possible in the coming year from continued financial fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic. The state’s budget year starts July 1.
The revised budget takes the cuts that Parson made on an emergency basis to this year’s budget and builds them into next year’s budget as well, said State Rep. Kip Kendrick, a Democrat from Columbia who is on the House Budget Committee.
For the University of Missouri System, that’s about a $36.5 million cut. UM officials have already said that furloughs, layoffs and other measures are likely as a result of state cuts and other reductions in revenue.
The budget proposal also includes large amounts of federal money, much of which has not been offered by the federal government yet. Those are basically placeholders, so that if the money is provided it can be spent. Kendrick said that in many cases even when the money is provided, newly released federal guidelines may severely limit how it can be used.
Without more federal money, Kendrick said it’s unlikely this budget is realistic. “If the feds don’t come through, then this (budget) would be out of balance,” he said.
In addition to the higher education cuts, a few notable changes regarding allocation of the state's general revenue include:
- MoDOT would have about $4.3 million less than the governor's recommendation, and about $55 million less than the actual fiscal 2020 budget. Much of that was because of one-time funding for bridge repairs in this year's budget.
- The Department of Economic Development would have about $31 million less than the governor's recommendation, and about $30 million less than the actual fiscal 2020 budget.
- The Department of Corrections would have about $18 million more from the actual fiscal 2020 budget, in large part to reimburse counties for holding state prisoners.
Rowden didn't specify which other legislative actions would be prioritized in the last three weeks of the session, but said "making policy changes that will make life easier for Missourians during the COVID-19 response and recovery" is the key priority in addition to the budget.
"After that, most options remain on the table, but the attention they receive will depend largely on the level of consensus we can build and the amount of time we have left,” Rowden said.
There had been talk of delaying the remainder of the session to allow for more financial clarity and holding a special session, but lawmakers opted against doing so.
Some Republicans leaders have said it is lawmakers’ duty to return now; some Democrats have accused them of rushing so that other priorities can also be passed, including a proposal to ask voters to undo redistricting changes made by the Clean Missouri constitutional amendment of 2018.
Meanwhile, Rep. Cheri Toalson Reisch, R-Hallsville, said lawmakers may not be done at the end of this session.
"We may have to come back in June to amend the budget as revenues are fluid because of COVID-19," Reisch said in an email response. "With only three weeks left before session adjourns on May 15, it's unknown what other legislation may get passed."
It won’t be entirely business as usual when the Senate and House reconvene.
The Senate plans to use larger spaces for committee meetings, including the Joint Committee Room and Senate, Jonathan Lorenz, director of Senate Communications said in an email.
"The space in both of these rooms will allow senators and staff to practice social distancing while conducting legislative hearings," Lorenz said.
Audio live streams will be available for hearings and for debate held in the Senate Chamber, and video will also be available for those held in the Joint Committee Room, Lorenz said.
Additionally, information on the Senate website lists the following guidelines:
- All entrants to the Capitol building will be required to submit to screening questions and physical screening. Members of the public must enter the building using the carriage entrance.
- Public seating in committees will be socially distanced and therefore very limited. No overflow space will be available.
- The public is encouraged to submit written testimony in lieu of in person oral testimony due to the limited public seating available. Written testimony may be submitted in lieu of in person testimony via email to firstname.lastname@example.org. All submissions must be received prior to the hearing.
Information regarding which committees will be held where and access to the livestream will be placed on the Senate website.
The House had not publicly shared detailed information as of Sunday. When representatives met earlier this month to pass a supplemental budget for the current year, stringent measures were taken in the House chamber to limit the number of representatives at any one time, which meant that taking each vote was a long process.
Kendrick said he has been told that such measures will not be replicated going forward, so that all lawmakers could be on the House floor at once, making social distancing unfeasible.
Reporter Abigail Shaw contributed to this report.