The spotlight will fall on the Missouri General Assembly this week as legislators return to Jefferson City for what promises to be a difficult and divisive legislative session. For starters, it's an election year and that always erodes cooperation as each political party jockeys for voter attention come November. But as important this year, the state will again struggle with a tight budget that will require one of two decisions - either we cut government spending or we raise revenues to cover the shortfall. It doesn't get simpler than that.
Gov. Bob Holden will propose a new budget that places the emphasis on education and jobs. Those are popular themes at least until voters hear how we're going to pay for education spending and job creation. To compound the problem even more, Holden is facing a tough re-election fight within his own party and, should he be successful at that, another tough battle against the GOP in November. All in all, the session promises ample disagreements on the future of our state.
Even before the session begins, the Democrats and the Republicans are miles apart on their assessment of where to begin. Holden thinks the state may be as much as $1 billion short of money this year and he'll renew his call for more revenue from business and residents alike. The Republicans meanwhile seem a bit more optimistic. The GOP estimates the budget shortfall might be closer to the $150 million range which may seem like a lot, but it's a much more manageable amount of budget concern. The irony is that neither side can predict with any certainty that they are right.
At the core of the problem is the budget process itself which puts much of state revenue in designated accounts that cannot be change by the legislature. That leaves the potential cuts to come from education, social services and health. Cutting a billion bucks from those state agencies would be disastrous. Cutting $150 million might be painful but it's not the end of the world.
Holden keeps insisting that he wants to eliminate some business "tax loopholes" that will generate new revenue. The GOP side of the aisle has consistently said no on those issues. But Holden has been equally adamant that he will veto deep cuts to the areas that are available to the legislature. So we have the making of yet another stalemate leading up to the election.
Here's an idea. Why don't the Republicans give Holden his "tax loophole" eliminations and see just what this new revenue will produce. At the same time, why doesn't Holden in turn agree to work out a couple hundred million in state spending reductions that the GOP has promoted. Combined, these two moves might just balance our state budget.
I strongly suspect that the majority of residents in Missouri would favor cuts in social services and Medicaid before they would approve any tax increase ideas. But once the specific details of those cuts surface, the sentiment might shift. Either way, look for a combative legislative session with limited resolutions. In other words, business as usual.