JEFFERSON CITY - After weeks of work paring programs from Missouri's budget, legislators were told by the House Budget staff Monday that they were still more than a third of a billion dollars short of a balanced state budget.
House Budget Committee Chairman Carl Bearden, R-St. Charles, said that meant cuts to state programs were not nearly over. Those cuts will likely be announced by the end of next week, as the House traditionally tries to pass a budget before its spring recess.
But Bearden's fellow Republicans in the Senate showed a new willingness to discuss increasing taxes to balance Missouri's budget.
Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman John Russell, R-Lebanon, introduced three bills last week that would effectively raise taxes on businesses and close several corporate exemptions.
Russell said he had introduced the bills as "placeholders" and was not currently pushing for their passage. However, he said the state would likely need to raise a sizeable amount of new revenue, and he refused to rule out the idea that a Republican-controlled legislature would pass substantial tax increases.
Rep. Chuck Graham of Columbia, a ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee, said the staff's report validates Democratic Gov. Bob Holden's position that the budget cannot be balanced without raising new revenue.
"If it was truly just a spending problem, [Republicans] wouldn't have had a problem cutting a billion dollars," Graham said. "They're either going to have to look at revenue enhancements, which is what we've said all along, or they're going to have to cut public education more than the $100 million they've already cut it."
To date, appropriations committees in the Republican-controlled House have approved measures that would cut health coverage for 80,000 poor children, trim $110 million from the governor's schools request, and close the state's eleven largest driver licensing offices.
Bearden said he would be urging the House Budget Committee to make deep new cuts, and he didn't deny that they would be painful. The budget, he said, must still be solved through program cuts.
"I think we can still do it without tax increases," Bearden said.
This means reexamining departments that got off relatively easy during the first round of cuts, including Higher Education, Corrections, and Mental Health, as well as looking to cut deeper into Social Services and state aid to schools.
Sen. Ken Jacob, D-Columbia, said solving the budget crisis entirely through spending cuts would result in more pain than voters would tolerate.
"[Missourians] will not be happy when they call the state government and nobody picks up the phone," Jacob said. "They will not be happy when people who have been receiving mental health care no longer receive it. They will not be happy when tuition they pay for their college student goes up 25 percent."