Mo. Digital News
Missouri Digital News
Mo. Digital News
Missouri Digital News
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By Phill Brooks
«RM75»«FC»«MDBO»COL137.PRB - Dealing with Less«MDNM»
The legislature's sweeping tax cut bill passed this spring, followed by voter rejection of the transportation sales tax increase, has led me to think about the possible need for state government to slim down.
Transportation officials acknowledge they will lack funds to maintain the state highway system within a few years.
Missouri already is more than $600 million below the goal the legislature itself set to assure equity of funding among state school districts. But legislative staff estimate that tax cut law ultimately will cost more than $600 million in lost taxes.
It suggests government officials need to find ways to deal with less money. But over my decades covering this place, efforts to slim down government have not been very successful.
Except for a couple of cuts to the growth of Medicaid spending and the merger of the Water Patrol with the Highway Patrol, budget-saving ideas at the magnitude this state may face in the future have made little headway in recent decades.
These failures demonstrate a lesson my government budget teacher, Stan Botner, taught me -- that the resistance in government to consolidation and cutting back is nearly insurmountable.
Just look at the track record during my time in the statehouse.
Missouri has one of the largest lower chambers in the U.S. But repeated efforts to scale down the size of the Missouri House have been killed by legislators themselves.
Our state has more than 500 school districts, each with a superintendent and other administrative staff.
Yet, rural legislators tell me there would be too much local opposition to the idea of consolidating school districts.
A similar duplication issue arises among the state's independent higher education institutions competing fiercely among themselves for state dollars to offer, in some cases, duplicative degree programs.
But a plan to consolidate those schools was killed from opposition from higher education itself.
Opposition from local sheriffs killed off an idea for a state crime investigation unit, similar to the FBI, to be more efficient in rural law enforcement.
It was part of a broader issue of addressing the high costs of the duplicative services among 114 counties and the city of St. Louis. Each has a sheriff, a prosecutor and other services. On top of that, state law requires a separate state welfare office in each county.
Once, a rural prosecutor confided to me that he sometimes could not extradite a wanted criminal caught in another state because of the transportation costs for his low-budget county.
The last major legislative effort at fundamental governmental reorganization was undertaken in the Senate just four years ago under an initiative called "Rebooting Government."
Senate committees spent weeks exploring how to reinvent and restructure government. From that effort arose the idea to combine the department overseeing higher education with the separate department regulating public schools.
But with legislative term limits, the leaders of that effort soon were gone and the initiative was forgotten.
The last successful effort at streamlining government occurred more than 40 years ago. Hundreds of independent, budget-competing agencies were consolidated under the governmental system we have today.
There were two significant aspects to that effort.
It was undertaken in an era before legislative term limits. So there was more time for lawmakers to formulate ideas and work those ideas through the legislature.
Second, Missouri's last successful reorganization effort was drafted by a group of private citizens called the "Little Hoover Commission."
It was one of several state "Little Hoover" commissions named after former Pres. Herbert Hoover who chaired a federal reorganization commission.
At least one state, California, still has a "Little Hoover Commission" going back to the 1960s to bring outside ideas to government.
Maybe Missouri needs something like that.
Maybe, it could be a departing legacy of Gov. Jay Nixon in his final two years to establish a process for coming up with ideas for Missouri government to deal with less.
[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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