Senators begin hearings on next year's budget

Advocates for programs and providers of services that receive state money explained the value of their projects Tuesday to Missouri lawmakers facing a budget deficit of several hundred million dollars.

Faced with the likelihood of state budget cuts, some of the people who testified asked lawmakers to spare them from the pending reductions instead of seeking additional funding. Others said they understood money was tight and urged lawmakers to do what they could.

Senate budget writers said they expect to face a $300 million to $500 million gap in the budget that takes effect in July.

Missouri officials are beginning work on the 2012 budget in earnest this week. Several House budget panels have scheduled meetings, the Senate Appropriations Committee heard public testimony and Gov. Jay Nixon was expected to release his proposed spending plan Wednesday evening.

Among those testifying Tuesday was Josh Weddington, a former cocaine user who graduated from one of Missouri’s drug courts.

Weddington, 28, of Jefferson City, said he again has custody for his children and that he has kept a job as a landscaper for three years — the longest amount of time he has held the same job. He urged lawmakers not to cut state spending on drug courts and said they offer people a second-chance with their lives.

“I know the state has a small amount of funding to give to certain areas,” Weddington said. “The drug courts are being funded now, and if they can just not take that away and just keep it where it’s at for right now, that would open up the door to a lot of people that have drug problems.”

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Kurt Schaefer said the shift away from requests for more money demonstrates that people understand the difficult budget situation Missouri faces.

“It’s also a very good thing for us to actually see people who are impacted by these programs,” said Schaefer, R-Columbia. “It can get a little sterile after a while in this committee when you’re looking at number upon number and the numbers are mind-boggling. But to actually put a face to the program and a face to the dollar amount, I think is actually compelling.”

House budget writers also have warned agencies not to expect budget increases. Outside the office door of Budget Committee Chairman Ryan Silvey is a welcome sign that asks visitors if they are arriving to seek more money than last year. If so, the sign states: “Have you lost your mind?”

Nixon’s administration has told state agencies to assume that anything cut from the current budget would remain gone in the next. It also told agencies not to ask for any additional money from the state’s general revenues, unless it is for a federally mandated program.

Still, Missouri’s judges moved closer Tuesday to potential pay raises in the 2013 budget year when a Senate committee narrowly backed a recommendation from the Missouri Citizens’ Commission on Compensation for Elected Officials.

The recommendation takes effect unless two-thirds of the Legislature rejects it by Feb. 1. However, money for the raises still would need to be included in the state budget.

Under the commission’s plan, the salaries of Missouri Supreme Court judges would be set at 69 percent of the salaries for their counterparts on the U.S. Supreme Court. Other Missouri judges would get salaries equal to 73 percent of the pay scale for their federal equivalents. Lawmakers and statewide elected officials would not get raises.

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