Mo. Digital News
Missouri Digital News
Mo. Digital News
Missouri Digital News
Lobbyist Money Help
By Phill Brooks
«RM75»«FC»«MDBO»COL113.PRB - Spending Fights in Missouri Government«MDNM»
The emerging battle between Missouri's governor and the state's General Assembly over state spending promises to be historic.
In my decades covering this process, I can remember only three times when there has been a disagreement of this magnitude about how much the state can afford.
Every time it has led to protracted and ugly political fights.
The first time arose in 1970 when Missouri's legislature effectively bankrupted the state by passing a budget plan signed by Gov. Warren Hearnes.
That budget well exceeded what the state collected in taxes which forced the legislature to pass the state's last major income tax increase.
The tax hike forced by Hearnes' budget was not easy. Voters rejected the first tax hike in a referendum led by the Senate's top leader, Earl Blackwell.
With the state broke and unable to pay its bills, Hearnes had no choice but to call lawmakers back into a special session to pass virtually the same tax hike.
The resulting bitterness in the Democratic-controlled Senate at the Democratic governor was lasting. The Senate had to oust their own leader to save a Democratic governor's bacon for a tax-increase that few in the Senate actually liked.
It helped destroy any chance for Hearnes to have a meaningful legislative role in his few remaining years as governor.
In fairness to those legislators of old, they had no way to make their own revenue projections. The Hearnes administration manipulated the monthly tax collection figures to a degree that made independent revenue projections impossible.
Less than a decade later, a similar budget fight arose under Gov. Joe Teasdale. In his reelection year, Teasdale presented a spending plan that clearly was beyond any reasonable estimate of tax collection expectations.
Key legislators of Teasdale's own party acknowledged his budget represented a spending level the state could not afford. But they could not stop it.
It was a lesson for me of how difficult it is for legislators to constrain the spending appetites of governors.
Traditionally, although not always, governors set the floor for a budget spending plan.
Legislators then increase spending in response to various outside pressures.
There's less pressure on legislators to cut because the vast majority of special interest groups lobbying lawmakers want more money for their own items with little interest in the overall spending cost.
Passage of Teasdale's unsustainable budget forced incoming Gov. Kit Bond to order immediate and deep spending cuts in state programs to keep the state's budget in balance.
My last experience with the kind of revenue fight we're now facing occurred under Gov. Bob Holden.
The Democratic governor based his spending plan on a package of huge package of tax increases presented to the GOP-controlled legislature. But Republican leaders had made it clear there was no chance for passage of those tax increases needed to fund Holden's budget.
And to make things more difficult, Holden's office ordered state agencies to refuse to assist the legislature in crafting a smaller budget.
The state avoided a crisis only because a Senate budget staffer worked with lower-level agency officials to craft a budget that was not based on tax increases that had no chance of clearing the legislature.
I should not end this column casting the past bloated budgets of governors in an entirely negative light.
The tax increase forced by that spending excess of Hearnes in 1970 ultimately provided continuing funding support for major improvements in areas like education, higher education, health, mental health, parks and much more that we take for granted today in Missouri.
I wish Hearnes were alive today for me to ask if his ultimate objective actually was to force a tax increase for expanded state services.
[Phill Brooks has been a Missouri statehouse reporter since 1970, making him dean of the statehouse press corps. He is the statehouse correspondent for KMOX Radio, director of MDN and an emeritus faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism. He has covered every governor since the late Warren Hearnes.]
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