House panel endorses spending limit proposal

A Missouri House committee on Wednesday endorsed a measure intended to limit future increases in state spending.

The proposed constitutional amendment would cap annual increases in the state budget at the rate of inflation plus the growth in population. The spending cap would apply only to the state’s general revenue over which lawmakers have the most discretion and not to funds from the federal government and other sources that often must be used for a specific purpose in the budget.

Supporters contend the spending cap would help control and smooth Missouri’s budgeting process. Lawmakers have considered similar measures over the past several years, but majority House Republicans this year have made the proposal one of their priorities for the session.

“It really tries to accomplish the goal of leveling off our expenditures, making a more stable environment and making sure that we try to reduce the boom and bust years that we have and that we have experienced,” said sponsoring Rep. Eric Burlison, R-Springfield.

The House Budget Committee approved the measure by a largely partisan 19-9 vote. The measure eventually would need to go before voters because it amends the Missouri Constitution.

Democrats serving on the Budget Committee questioned the necessity for limiting lawmakers’ spending decisions and raised fears that a constitutional spending cap could make it harder for schools and other government programs to get adequate state funding.

“I am concerned about locking them into a budget that is not meeting their needs,” said Rep. Genise Montecillo, D-St. Louis.

Lawmakers have proposed using the 2008 budget year as their baseline for measuring increases in government spending. The calculation would count total state appropriations that use general revenue, but would exempt some costs such as the principal and interest for state debts and payments for court judgments. Because of tight state budgets in recent years, supporters of the cap said it could be several years before spending would return to that level.

Several organizations voiced opposition to the proposed constitutional amendment, including two education groups and the Missouri Municipal League.

Besides restrictions for state spending, the proposed constitutional amendment restructures part of the state budgeting process. In years when state general revenue exceeds the new spending limit, the additional funds first would be used to pay some state debts with the remainder put into two budget reserve funds. Eventually, the additional revenues could go toward a state income tax cut. In bad budget years, funds could be tapped with the approval of lawmakers and the governor.

Allen Icet, a Republican former House Budget Committee Chairman who had sponsored the measure during his legislative career, urged lawmakers to approve the constitutional amendment. He said a spending limit was needed to ward off spending increases made in good economic times that cannot be sustained when revenue sours.

“The only way to force the difficult process of determining priorities — and that’s what you’re here to do is determine what the priority is — is to somehow limit the amount of money available,” Icet said.

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