JEFFERSON CITY - Proposals to consolidate parts of Missouri's executive branch took one step forward in the Senate but stagnated in the House during two committee hearings Wednesday.
In the Senate, the General Laws committee passed two pieces of legislation, one to implement an audit of all departments to find wasteful resources and another that is intended to, the committee chairman said, consolidate the Elementary and Secondary Education and Higher Education departments. However, a separate proposal in the House to merge the state highway and water patrols was met with significantly more opposition.
The Senate committee, by a 5-0 vote, approved a proposed constitutional amendment that, if passed as is, would abolish all but one of the state departments. But its sponsor, Senate Speaker Pro Tem Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph, called it a "shell bill" that will be significantly altered. This shell bill could be an avenue, he said, for combining the two education departments, a move that has been pushed by Gov. Jay Nixon.
Shields gave the Senate another means to consolidate Wednesday with another constitutional amendment that would modify the state Board of Education so it covers all public schooling in the state, including higher education. He said this was done as a mechanism to leave legislators with enough room to modify the language, while also providing multiple routes for passing consolidation.
"We also believe you may have to have two separate amendments at the same time, and they'll both have to pass," Shields said of the education consolidation. "But it's April, and we do have time to put them together, but we want to get the vehicles moving and work on the details as the month goes on."
Shields said the education consolidation would save millions of dollars, although the exact total isn't known yet. But he said streamlining departments would also increase efficiency and quality of education.
"The reason to do it is to create a better higher education system," Shields said. "Right now DESE is a very strong department; higher education is a weak department."
By another 5-0 vote, the committee also approved another Shields-sponsored bill which would require the state Commissioner of the Office of Administration to issue a report by the end of the year analyzing programs in every executive department that can be cut or consolidated. Three people speaking on behalf of alcohol manufacturers and distributors testified they feared the bill would be used to combine the Missouri Division of Alcohol and Tobacco Control with the Department of Revenue.
Shields said he was not sure what the bill would be used for. He said he had merely thought about moving the liquor board but not yet moved to act on that notion.
"I've been here 20 years, and I've never before had groups testify against a thought in my head," said Shields, who served in the House from 1991 to 2002 before moving to the Senate. "The bill doesn't say anything. I haven't executed my thoughts and already they're against it."
Senate General Laws Committee Chairman Jack Goodman, R-Mt. Vernon, acknowledged that, with five weeks remaining in the session and a likely contentious budget debate slated to begin next week, it will not be easy to pass these bills. But he added that, with a budget shortfall in the hundreds of millions of dollars, any measure that can save money could still make it to Nixon's desk by the middle of May before session ends.
"It's very possible to get this done in five weeks," Goodman said. "Unless we hear that this is really bad policy, we have to take a long look at any cost-cutting measure we can."
In the House Public Safety Committee, a plan that would combine the departments in an effort to conserve state funds and utilize officers more efficiently was the sole bill addressed and with far more opposition than the Senate bills.
Currently, both the highway and water patrols fall fall under the jurisdiction of the Department of Public Safety. Under the proposed legislation, the water patrol would become a subsidiary of the highway patrol.
The bill's sponsor, Rep. Jeff Roorda, D-Barnhart, touted the consolidation of the two patrols as a cost-saving measure. According to a testimony by Public Safety Department spokesperson Andrea Spillars, the measure could save the state as much as $3 million annually.
"This is about efficiency," said Spillars, who spoke in support of the bill.
But former Missouri Water Patrol Colonel Rad Talbert said the move was little more than a "knee-jerk reaction" to the state's budgetary woes, which have left lawmakers scrambling for solutions.
"This has been very frustrating for me to see this happening," Talbert said. "Why fix something that's not broken?"
Talbert said the plan, which would assign troopers to the highway and water patrols interchangeably, could be dangerous and costly. He said supplemental highway patrol training for water patrol officers would demand as much as $180,000 and, even then, he said, lives would still be at risk.
"To put an officer in a boat that drives so differently than a car is looking for a disaster," Talbert said.
Four witnesses appeared to testify before the committee, the majority of whom echoed Talbert's remarks.
The committee's chair, Rep. Mark Bruns, R-Jefferson City, said the committee will vote on the bill no earlier than next week.
As for the Senate, Shields says they have taken a look at a number of consolidations, including merging the highway and water patrol. However, he said that doesn't appear as likely to garner support nearly as much as proposals to combine the education departments.
"We are taking a look at a number of (consolidation) proposals, but none of them have the same momentum as education," Shields said, adding that these proposal weren't introduced by Nixon until last month. "We just don't have the language done yet because we haven't had the time."