By DAVID A. LIEB
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) - Missouri lawmakers opened their 2012 session Wednesday with a pledge by legislative leaders to close the state's projected $500 million budget gap and revamp its underfunded public school system but without any immediate answers about how they would do it.
The session that continues through May 18 will be the last go-around for dozens of lawmakers prohibited from re-election this year because of term limits. Senate President Pro Tem Rob Meyer said the clock is ticking to confront the two lofty financial challenges of the budget crunch and the schools crisis, in which two of Missouri's largest districts str unaccredited.
"Some predict not much will be accomplished," Mayer, R-Dexter, said in opening remarks to the chamber. But "we must act, and do so swiftly to pass a balanced budget without a tax increase for the people of Missouri and to help put Missourians back to work in this stagnant and weak economy."
Lawmakers will have about two weeks of work before Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon presents his budget and policy proposals during his annual State of the State address on Jan. 17. The governor's budget director already has indicated that every state department is likely to take cuts. Nixon's administration and Republican legislative leaders alike have indicated that they hope to spare public K-12 school districts from cuts, but there have been no guarantees.
In recent years, Missouri has failed to provide the full amount called for by the formula that funds its more than 500 school districts. The Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has said that by the 2014 budget, and after some recalculations within the formula, Missouri could need to add more than $700 million on top of what currently is spent.
Lawmakers will attempt to tweak the formula during their 2012 session, but there is no agreement yet on how to do that. Some lawmakers also will be pushing for broader educational changes targeted at students in the St. Louis and Kansas City school districts, which both have lost their state accreditation. One of their chief concerns is how to implement - or whether to revise - an existing law that allows students in failing districts to transfer to other nearby schools.
After failing to pass a comprehensive overhaul of Missouri's business incentives during an autumn special session, Republican legislative leaders have scaled back their pro-business agenda for the 2012 session. They plan to focus on changes to the legal system for handling worker claims of injuries and discrimination. Republicans contend current policies are preventing some businesses from expanding.
"Missourians expect us to get to work, to help get them back to work," said House Speaker Steven Tilley, R-Perryville. "And to do that, we must work to create a climate where businesses believe they can not only keep their doors open, but can grow and hire."
Democrats questioned whether the Republican business proposals actually would have much of an effect on Missouri's economy, where the unemployment rate remains a little over 8 percent.
"Most of that list doesn't really create that many jobs," said Senate Minority Leader Victor Callahan, D-Independence.
Associated Press writer Chris Blank contributed to this report.