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House Budget Plan Would Ax Spending, Force Departments to Choose Cuts

March 12, 2003
By: Jason McLure
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - House Republicans unveiled a budget plan Wednesday that essentially would surrender the General Assembly's "power over the purse strings" in an attempt to slash the overall size of the state budget.

Under the plan, the state's schools and universities would each see their state funding cut by roughly 10 percent -- but the two departments would be given unprecedented sweeping powers to decide how to allocate funds among educational programs and agencies.

The University of Missouri system would cease to have its own appropriation line. Instead, funding for the system and the individual campuses would be dependent upon action by the Coordinating Board for Higher Education.

CBHE would then be free to determine how to allocate the funds -- by campus, by academic unit or some other criteria determined by the board.

This is a result of House Speaker Catherine Hanaway and House Budget Committee Chairman Carl Bearden deciding not to continue with the process of cutting Missouri's budget program by program.

Instead, the House leadership announced plans Wednesday to give each department in state government an allocation for all their activities, and leave the decisions of which programs to cut in the hands of departments.

As a result, the entire Missouri budget as passed out of the General Assembly could fit on just a couple of sheets of paper.

Rep. Chuck Graham, D-Columbia, said that by taking this tactic Republicans --the majority party in the House for the first time in 48 years-- are neglecting the budgeting duties they were elected to perform.

"They've abdicated all their responsibilities," Graham said. "They're like the dog that chased the car and caught it, and didn't know what to do with it. Well we've seen what they've done with it. They smelled the tire, they peed on it and then they went back to the yard."

Gov. Bob Holden offered a budget plan in January that depends on nearly $700 million in tax increases in order to finance current spending levels for state government.

Republicans have criticized the plan as being unrealistic. This is because parts of the governor's plan, including a $250 million increase in tobacco taxes, would require voter approval. Missourians narrowly defeated a tobacco tax increase in November's election. The Republican plan would balance the budget without tax increases.

Hanaway and Bearden said they've been frustrated with the appropriations process, and accused Holden and department heads of refusing to cooperate with them on budget reductions. They announced the new plan after a private meeting with the governor Wednesday morning that several in attendance described as hostile.

"When I asked [the governor] if there was any opportunity to pick one program over another or to set one priority over another, he literally picked up the budget book from the state of the state, pushed it across the table to me, and said 'these are my priorities'," Hanaway said.

Hanaway added that cuts were needed to knock Missouri's budget into some semblance of balance, and that cutting the overall size of the budget was more important than molding the shape of it.

The Republican proposal would be a tectonic shift in how state funds are distributed, as legislators would no longer have the power to protect their local campuses from cuts. CBHE Commissioner Quentin Wilson said that while more flexibility in how to spend state funds could allow the board to run schools more effectively, the cut in state funding could have dramatic results.

If the Republican plan goes through, Wilson refused to rule out the possibility that entire campuses could be closed, departments in the state's flagship universities shut down, and faculty laid off.

"This is really a triple whammy," Wilson said. "We are already underfunded in higher education. We are already underperforming as a state. It's going to lead to the creation of a Third World education system."

In addition, House Democrats are predicting that if the proposed cuts are finalized, thousands of state workers and teachers will be laid off across Missouri.

Those numbers haven't been confirmed by department administrators, though several have acknowledged that proposed cuts would cause reductions in 'core' services.

State aid to elementary and secondary schools would be cut more than a quarter of a billion dollars, a drop that Jim Morris, a spokesman for the Education Department said would "inevitably" lead to teacher layoffs.

Revenue Department Director Carol Fischer said that cuts in highway funds for her department would result in her choosing to close the state's largest motor vehicle registration offices.

Chris Rackers, a spokesman for the Social Services Department said that though Republican proposals for her department would increase its budget from this year, it would still be less than what the governor had allotted. That could mean cuts in health care for senior citizens, disabled children, and services for foster children, she said.

Hanaway acknowledged that the budget reduction process will not be easy, but said that cutting the budget was the mandate voters had given her party last fall.

"We are not afraid to do something that is bold, even though we may be subject to criticism for it, because we truly believe it is the very best public policy" Hanaway said. "It is time to slow the growth in government, to reduce spending, and to set priorities."

(Elizabeth Gill contributed to this story)