Democrats say final Missouri budget pads special interests with state cash

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(Missouri Independent) – When the final budget votes were over Friday and the constitutional deadline was met, Missouri House Republicans crowed about holding the line on spending while Democrats accused the GOP of failing the state’s most vulnerable citizens.

A budget process that had the least public input in years — with just a pro-forma public hearing in the House and no calls for public testimony by Senate budget writers — left no one pleased with the process. But House Budget Committee Chairman Cody Smith said he was proud of the $51.7 billion plan that spent less than the $52.7 billion Gov. Mike Parson proposed in January.

“While we have a very good final product, the process left something to be desired,” Smith said at a news conference with other Republicans.

The final votes were taken with about three hours to go before the constitutional deadline for passing a budget. The details of the final 17 spending bills — one to fund programs through June and the remainder to fund next year’s operations and construction — only emerged Thursday when the Senate began voting.

Factional warfare among Senate Republicans meant that the chamber never debated the bills produced by the Senate Appropriations Committee. There was no formally appointed bipartisan, bicameral conference committee to negotiate differences between the chambers. 

Instead, Smith and Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Lincoln Hough ironed out the details in days of private negotiations. There are usually preliminary talks like that before the conference committee, but the decisions are then aired one at a time, and other members can question the result or seek a change.

“This year’s budget process was a complete disaster and a terrible precedent to be set,” House Democratic Leader Crystal Quade of Springfield said at a news conference after the House adjourned. “We cannot allow the new normal for spending taxpayer money to become just two guys writing a budget and secret and then jamming it through the process at the very last minute, full of pork and appeasing lobbyists, but the most vulnerable among us are everyday citizens not being included.”

The budget plan taps the state’s accumulated surplus to spend $15.3 billion in general revenue. By putting a “one-time” designation on $1.35 billion of the $14.6 billion allocated for state operations in the coming year, Smith was able to say the budget uses no more for ongoing programs than the state expects in tax receipts.

The designation is on the $363.7 in general revenue that will be put in a fund for improving Interstate 44, a project Smith, a Carthage Republican running for state treasurer, inserted into the budget. It is also on $336.2 million that funds the Medicaid managed care program.

There are also one-time designations on $580 million in spending from federal and other funds. The smallest is $1,613 for the expense and equipment needs of the Department of Social Services’s Division of Legal Services, paid from federal funds.

“The designation of anything one time is just a signal to the world that we’re paying for it this year and we may not be doing it next year,” Smith said.

Democrats, however, said in many instances it is a false economy.

 House Minority Leader Crystal Quade, D-Springfield, surrounded by other Democrats, speaks Friday about the $51.7 billion state budget approved in the House (Annelise Hanshaw/Missouri Independent). 

“Several lawmakers running in Republican primaries for statewide office want to be able to claim credit for imposing big cuts in state spending,” said Quade, a candidate for governor. “But all they really did was lowball the estimated costs of several state programs that everyone who is being honest about the situation knows will require substantially more spending authority to fully fund.”

Before Senate votes on the budget began Thursday, Parson said his budget staff had no idea what was in the final budget crafted by Smith and Hough. If the budget fails to adequately fund state operations, Parson said he would not leave it to his successor to fill in the gaps.

The majority of the cuts to Parson’s January budget proposal were in three departments – Health and Senior Services, Mental Health and Social Services. Total funding for those agencies is $829 million below the amounts requested by Parson. 

One cut was to funding for personal care assistance intended to help elderly people and people with disabilities remain in their homes, reduced by $86 million. Another was to the overall managed care budget, which is about $500 million below Parson’s request.

While those cuts were being made, the budget includes almost 300 new earmarked items, costing more than $2 billion, sprinkled throughout the 16 appropriation bills for the coming year. The largest is $727.5 million Smith inserted for I-44 improvements

“Lobbyists got paid and poor people got screwed,” said the House’s second-ranking Democrat, Rep. Richard Brown of Kansas City.

On many of the bills, large numbers of Democrats voted “present” to protest the process that produced the budget.

On the floor, state Rep. Deb Lavender said cuts to those departments – and the rejection of increases included in the bills never debated in the Senate – will hurt people with developmental disabilities, leaving many stranded on waiting lists or housed in hospitals and jails.

“You offer to pay $17 an hour to someone and you can’t find anyone to do the work,” she said.

When the budget debate opened, state Rep. Peter Merideth, ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee, said it was the worst process in his eight years in the House. 

“We’ve seen the budget process get worse and worse,” Merideth said. “We’ve put in less hours each year. When I started we were here all through the session till midnight or later working on the budget.”

Smith said he agreed the process used this year should not be repeated, but he defended his openness, saying he never heard from any Democrats while he was in talks with Hough.

“I detect that the other side of the aisle is very grumpy about the way that this has unfolded,” Smith said. “And that’s something I understand from their perspective.”

The votes on all bills were concluded in about four hours. The motion to shut off debate, used regularly in the House, was called for on nine of the bills. On one, Lavender, the ranking Democrat on the appropriations subcommittee for the three departments with the deepest cuts, was left at the microphone without a chance to speak.

On the next bill, state Rep. Patty Lewis of Kansas City summed up the feelings of many Democrats.

“Grumpy is an understatement,” Lewis said. “Frankly, I am outraged.”

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Rudi Keller

Rudi Keller covers the state budget, energy, and the legislature. He’s spent 22 of his 30 years in journalism covering Missouri government and politics, most recently as the news editor of the Columbia Daily Tribune. Keller has won awards for spot news and investigative reporting.