JEFFERSON CITY - Missouri lawmakers passed the final version of the state's almost $25 billion operating budget to the governor Thursday, May 9, which includes cuts to the Department of Revenue.
The legislature-approved budget would only fund the Motor Vehicles Division in the department for two-thirds of the year. Both the House and Senate approved the budget despite threats from Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon that cuts to the Department of Revenue would lead him to lay off staff within the agency.
Nixon threatened to cut staff and reduce services at a press conference Wednesday, May 8, unless state lawmakers took another look at their approved budget.
"They leave me no choice," Nixon said. "I will reduce staff and services accordingly, including making the necessary layoffs effective July 1."
Rep. Jay Barnes said Thursday that Nixon would be solely to blame for anyone put out of a job.
“His threat yesterday is disgusting, it’s dishonest, and it’s deplorable,” said Barnes, R-Jefferson City. “It’s an insult to the intelligence of all Missourians.”
Republican budget leaders said the cuts will allow further investigation into the department’s sharing of gun owner’s private information with the federal government through its new licensing procedure.
Rep. Rick Stream, R-St. Louis County, said Thursday that lawmakers would send a letter to Nixon stating their intent to restore the last four months of the department’s funding once they reconvene next year.
House Democrats said they support Nixon’s decision to act on the notion that the budget constitutes a full-year’s worth of funding. They said it would be too big of a gamble to rely on the General Assembly to pass a supplemental budget fast enough so as to not put the collection of sales taxes and people’s ability to obtain driver’s licenses at risk.
Although it passed relatively quickly through the House, the budget was held up for several hours in the Senate. It was held up not over objections to the Revenue Department's funding but because of the way the budget funds programs for children with disabilities and low income seniors.
Led by Sen. Ryan Silvey, R-Kansas City, a handful of lawmakers objected to a change that budget negotiators from each chamber made this week in shaping their final spending plan. That change would fund programs for disabled children with money saved by the repeal of a tax credit that low-income renters receive.
The funding for the disabled children programs had originally come from elsewhere in the budget. But legislators want to force Nixon to sign legislation repealing the renters' tax credit, a measure he recently said he would veto unless it was part of broader tax credit reform legislation. That broader legislation still faces significant hurdles in the Capitol.
Silvey and other senators expressed their anger that that restructuring took place not in a legislative chamber, but in a relatively small negotiating committee with little public discussion.
"Just because rules have been violated in the past, is it okay to violate them in the future?" Silvey said. "We let other people get away with it, so we should get away with it too?"
Nixon had originally said the repeal of the renters' tax credit was a key piece of legislation needed to fund his budget for the next year. Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey is sponsoring a bill to do that and the governor's budget director testified in favor of that legislation. But weeks later, Nixon said he would reject the bill unless it came with other provisions.
During Thursday's debate, Dempsey signaled his feeling of betrayal at the governor's veto threat.
"The moral of this story is to not offer to sponsor another priority for the governor, because he's not trustworthy," Dempsey said.
Silvey and others directed a large part of the criticism of the budget changes at Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, and accused him of crafting a secret plan with the House to force the governor's hand. Schaefer insisted that the change was necessary and that it didn't violate the rules the Senate uses for budget negotiations.
Toward the end of the day's debates, Schaefer pointed out that the budgeting process is a complicated and sometimes contentious one.
"It's like trying to build the Empire State Building out of a Jenga game," Schaefer said.