Missouri House advances $23B operating budget

Missouri House members gave first-round approval Tuesday to a more than $23 billion state operating budget that holds K-12 education spending steady, trims public university budgets and restricts the governor’s ability to travel on the state’s dime.

The House cut budgets for public colleges and universities by about 7 percent and approved spending slightly more than $3 billion in basic aid for public schools — the same amount of money that districts are to receive this year but more than $200 million less than what a state funding formula says should go to schools next year. Meanwhile, state transportation aid that helps schools pay for busing would remain largely unchanged from what districts received this year, though only about two-thirds of what the Legislature actually budgeted before midyear spending cuts.

Lawmakers, who have scrutinized the travel of Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon, also cracked down on it and barred every state department except the Department of Public Safety from picking up the tab for the staff and travel of statewide elected officials. The House planned to add $500,000 to the governor’s budget, though that was diverted Tuesday by Democratic Rep. Jamilah Nasheed for dropout prevention in St. Louis.

Nixon’s travel has gained attention this year after The Associated Press first reported in 2009 that the governor was charging state agencies for his flights instead of paying for them using his office budget. Nixon has defended his travel and said it was both appropriate and efficient to bill state agencies, especially when department officials accompany him on trips related to issues they oversee.

House Budget Committee Chairman Ryan Silvey endorsed the effort to tap the travel money. Silvey said Nixon could use money for his staff’s salaries or bill the Department of Public Safety if the travel was needed.

“Do we let the governor continue to fly around incessantly on the state plane, or do we help kids in St. Louis get a leg up?” said Silvey, R-Kansas City.

Lawmakers voted overwhelmingly to shift money from the governor’s budget to a program that encourages high school dropout students to get their GED. One critic, Rep. Chris Kelly, said the budget maneuver was manipulating students to criticize Nixon.

“Every governor has to travel. We know that,” said Kelly, D-Columbia.

A Nixon spokesman said Tuesday that the governor’s office would give the budget a thorough review after it is approved by lawmakers.

On the other hand, a Democratic lawmaker sought to cut $185,000 from the budget of Republican state Auditor Tom Schweich, taking aim at salaries for some aides. That attempt was defeated.

Missouri’s budget for the 2012 fiscal year starting July 1 is spread over 13 bills. The House gave the legislation first-round approval Tuesday after less than five hours of debate spread over two days. The budget still needs another round of approval in the House before it can move to the Senate where the discussion was expected to go less smoothly.

The proposed budget includes other cuts, such as reducing the budgets of statewide elected officials by 5 percent, paring $8.3 million from the Missouri Lottery’s advertising budget, and a series of amendments intended to limit the salaries of state agency officials to $86,500 and save an estimated $1 million.

On the whole, House members generally avoided the frequently highly contentious debates and flurry of amendments that have marked budget debates in previous years.

House Democrats said the spending proposals underfunded critical services such as health, social services and education but acknowledged that there was little that could be done. They urged colleagues to consider future efforts to boost state revenue such as by raising tobacco taxes or collecting sales taxes for Internet purchases.

Rep. Sara Lampe, the ranking Democrat on the Budget Committee, said the affect of the spending cuts would be felt by Missourians and warned that several years of budget trimming have left the state sliding in the wrong direction.

“Doing the best we can under the circumstances is not the same as doing what we must,” said Lampe, D-Springfield.

Silvey urged lawmakers to remember what the budget does accomplish.

“By passing these bills, we are doing a tremendous amount of good for a tremendous number of people,” Silvey said.

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