Republican senators stall debate on Mo. budget

By DAVID A. LIEB

Associated Press

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — A coalition of fiscally conservative Republican senators has stalled debate on Missouri’s proposed $24 billion budget, contending it relies too much on one-time funding sources and optimistic revenue projections.

The group of nine senators, more than a third of the Republicans’ majority, bogged down debate on the budget late Monday night. They said the budget fails to set aside enough money for unexpected expenses and carries over financial strains into future years. Missouri’s next budget year begins July 1.

After a series of close-door negotiations, senators quit minutes before midnight without taking a single vote on the budget. Senate Majority Leader Tom Dempsey said key senators planned to meet Tuesday with department directors about the budget, which could come back up for debate later in the day.

“There are a few final issues that need to be resolved,” said Dempsey, R-St. Charles.

The proposed state budget, as approved earlier this month by a Senate committee, would hold funding flat for public colleges and universities, and provide a relatively small increase for public K-12 schools. It also would cut funding for social services, including the foster care system, child-care subsidies for lower-income parents and grants to preschools.

The plan also would reduce state funding for a health-care program for the blind, although not as large of a cut as passed by the House, and would require participants to start paying premiums, co-payments and deductibles.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, contends that the proposed budget is balanced, with some money left over to cover unexpected costs that may arise.

However, Sen. Jim Lembke, an appropriations committee member who helped lead the opposition to the budget plan, contends it is about $150 million out of balance.

Fueling Lembke’s frustration is the fact that the proposed budget depends on more than $200 million from one-time funding sources, including $40 million from Missouri’s share of a nationwide settlement with mortgage lenders. The Republican budget dissenters contend that Missouri has relied for too long on annual patches to keep the budget afloat.

It’s comparable to believing that “somehow pennies from heaven — or dollars from heaven — are just going to rain upon our state next year” to replace the one-time funds, said Lembke, R-St. Louis County.

Although both Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon and the Republican-led House already have endorsed doing so, Sen. Jason Crowell said it is particularly unwise — and even offensive — for Missouri to divert mortgage settlement money to the state’s general revenue fund to avoid cuts that Nixon originally had proposed for public colleges and universities.

“Maybe we should have every state worker break their leg, file a workers’ comp claim, take their workers’ comp money, and that’s how we balance the budget,” said Crowell, R-Cape Girardeau.

Crowell contends that Missouri should address its perpetual budget problems by passing legislation to curtail tax credits, which waive hundreds of millions of dollars annually as incentives to restore historic buildings, develop low-income housing, attract businesses and offset a portion of the taxes paid by seniors. But that bill has repeatedly failed, largely because of divisions among Republicans.

The coalition of Republican budget dissenters has been pushing for about a dozen specific changes, including the elimination of proposed pay raises for state employees and the rejection of about $50 million of federal funds to improve the state’s Medicaid computer system. Some Republicans have expressed fears that the computer improvements, while needed, could help lay the groundwork for Missouri to later implement a health insurance exchange under the provisions of the new federal health care law signed by President Barack Obama.

Some Republican senators also have complained that the budget relies on rosy projections of lottery revenues to help fund education.

Dempsey said the difference amounts to a tiny fraction of the total budget and can be bridged.

“I consider myself a fiscal conservative,” Dempsey said. “Now I’m also a realist, taking into account that we have a Democratic governor and a House that we have to deal with. Where I draw the line with pragmatism, they draw the line at a different place.”

In addition to Crowell and Lembke, the coalition of Republican senators pushing for changes to the budget included Jane Cunningham of St. Louis County, Will Kraus of Lee’s Summit, Brad Lager of Savannah, Brian Nieves of Washington, Chuck Purgason of Caulfield, Luann Ridgeway of Smithville and Rob Schaaf of St. Joseph.

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