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Analysis: Reality tempers spending recommendations

Analysis: Reality tempers spending recommendations

December 20th, 2010 by DAVID A. LIEB, Associated Press Writer in News

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) - The Great Recession that has plunged states into a great financial funk has made realists out of the typically idealistic committees that recommend ways of improving government and ensuring a bright future for society.

Consider two such reports released in recent weeks.

The Missouri Citizens' Commission on Compensation for Elected Officials said all elected officials deserve a raise. But it recommended giving no raise to state lawmakers and executives because of political and budgetary realities. And it said judges should wait a couple more years to get the raise it recommended.

On Friday, the Missouri Senate's Educated Citizenry 2020 Committee produced a report setting forth some ambitious goals to improve the quality of public education offered to Missouri residents. But the committee chairman acknowledged there probably is no money to carry out some of the initiatives - at least not in the next few years.

Pay raises, new programs and expanded government services all have become a rarity in recent years - replaced by layoffs and spending cuts as state officials have patched together budgets with federal economic stimulus funds and falling state sales and income taxes collections.

That federal stimulus money is about to run out. And tax revenues, through finally showing signs of growth, remain far below the levels of just a few years ago. Gov. Jay Nixon's administration is projecting a $500 million to $700 million shortfall for the fiscal year that begins July 1 - a gap equal to almost 10 percent of the state's general revenues.

In that context, the state salary commission convened a series of hastily-called and little-publicized meetings this fall to gather public testimony on potential pay raises for legislative, executive and judicial branch employees. The commission is required by law to make recommendations every two years. Unless rejected by a two-thirds vote of the Legislature by Feb. 1, the recommended salary increases automatically take effect with the next budget.

Lawmakers allowed the recommended pay raises to take effect in 2006. They rejected them two years ago, noting it was an inopportune time economically to provide a pay raise for themselves. But some senators bemoaned the fact that it was an all-or-nothing package, prohibiting them from approving judicial pay raises while denying raises for lawmakers and the governor.

Judges for several years now have complained that their salaries - while well above Missouri's median income - are low compared with what they could earn as private-sector attorneys. They said it is getting difficult to attract and keep good judges on the bench.

So this year, the salary commission is hoping to make its recommendations more politically palatable by suggesting that no one gets pay raises during the 2012 fiscal year and that only judges receive pay hikes in 2013. The plan would set the salaries of Missouri Supreme Court judges 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.

The commission's report does not project a total cost. But Nixon's budget director, Linda Luebbering, estimated that the recommended pay raise and associated fringe benefits could cost Missouri $5.3 million.

Can the state afford that?

"I'm not going to start speculating on 2013 yet. In 2012? No," Luebbering said.

The report by the Senate's Educated Citizenry panel also includes several recommendations that could carry a price tag, though none is specifically listed.

As a general goal, it says a strong preschool program should ensure that all kindergartners enter school with the skills to be successful; that 75 percent of students in every school district meet proficiency marks on the state's standardized achievement tests; and that 60 percent of all adults attain college degrees.

To boost kindergarten readiness, the report notes that Missouri must support voluntary, public preschool programs available to all and "explore potential funding sources."

To boost student achievement in public schools, the state should "promote continuous learning opportunities for students" through summer school programs and longer school days or years, the report said. Again, the state would need to "create funding options to support these initiatives." Increasing college graduation rates also may require "a revised funding structure" that emphasizes performance measures.

The report also recommends rewarding high-quality teachers with extra pay.

How would the state get money for all that?

"That's a real challenge of this committee," said the chairman, Sen. David Pearce, R-Warrensburg. "I'm hoping that by 2014 or 2015, things will have improved in our state on state revenues."

Pearce added: "This is a long-range plan."

EDITOR'S NOTE - David A. Lieb has covered state government and politics for The Associated Press since 1995.