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Legislature sets sights on budget

Monday, January 7, 2002

JEFFERSON CITY - Money is always at the center of the legislative process as lawmakers spend months wrangling to secure funding for needed or wanted programs and projects.

Regardless of political affiliation, most lawmakers agree that the free-spending days of the flush 1990s are over, and the state has no choice but to rein in the budget, which currently tops $19 billion.

That reality will put even greater focus on state finances and impact virtually every major issue before the General Assembly during the 2002 legislative session, which begins Wednesday and ends May 17. As state Rep. Denny Merideth, D-Kennett, put it, there is really only one important issue this year: "Budget, budget, budget."

"There are a lot of important issues, without a doubt," Merideth said. "But how we handle the budget and the direction we go are going to be crucial."

Those looking to add new programs or increase funding for existing efforts will be out of luck, said state Rep. Phillip Britt, D-Kennett.

"Any bill that is filed that would cost the state money is not going to pass," Britt said. "We can joke about it a little bit, but the fact is we have to be more fiscally responsible."

Senate President Pro Tem Peter Kinder, R-Cape Girardeau, said this new age of austerity will be tough for legislators, state officials and citizens.

"The budget will be something we will wrestle with just about every day until we finish it in May," Kinder said. "It's just not as pleasant as it is when you have revenue sufficient to meet all the needs. It involves making a lot of tough choices and saying 'no' to a lot of people."

Since summer, Democratic Gov. Bob Holden has ordered $536 million cut or withheld from the current budget due to lower than anticipated revenues flowing into the state treasury. Holden will announce his proposed budget for fiscal year 2003, which begins July 1, next week.

So far, spending for elementary and secondary education has been spared from cuts. State Rep. Jason Crowell, R-Cape Girardeau, said education must continue to be protected.

"We need to do everything we can to make sure we fully fund the foundation formula for education," said Crowell, a member of the appropriations committee that reviews spending requests for education.

In addition to full funding of the formula, which determines how much state money local districts receive, Crowell said lawmakers shouldn't raid other aspects of the education budget to cover shortfalls elsewhere.

So far, neither Holden nor many lawmakers are talking about a tax increase to preserve existing spending levels. However, a proposed tax package to fund transportation improvements, which failed last year, again looks to be a major issue.

The recent replacement of half of the six-member state Highways and Transportation Commission, accused of breaking past promises, has caused some former opponents of a transportation tax to soften their positions.

However, in the current economic climate, that still might not be enough to win the needed voter approval of a tax package, should one clear the Legislature.

State Rep. Rod Jetton, R-Marble Hill, said the commission has made steps in the right direction, but still has a long way to go to restore public confidence.

"In my opinion, the people will not be ready to sign off on a tax increase," Jetton said.

However, Jetton said a defeat at the ballot box might not necessarily be bad, perhaps serving to spur the Department of Transportation to make further improvements.

While initial criticism of MoDOT was warranted in 1998 when it moved away from a construction plan that heavily benefited rural Missouri, Britt said the time for bickering has long since passed.

"The reality is, if everyone stepped up a few years ago and instead of throwing stones said 'let's fix the problem,' we'd be in a lot better shape," Britt said. "... It has become almost a sport in Jefferson City to beat up on the highway commission."

However, Britt isn't confident voters are prepared to endorse higher taxes.

Another major issue left over from 2001 is state taxpayer support for a new baseball park for the St. Louis Cardinals. Kinder said he remains a staunch proponent of the plan, which Holden also supports.

"I think the governor is pretty committed to it, so we'll see what he can deliver," Kinder said.

However, Kinder is in the minority among rural legislators in his position.

State Rep. Mark Richardson, R-Poplar Bluff, said the only way a stadium bill will make any progress is if projects in Kansas City, Springfield and perhaps elsewhere receive funding in addition to the Cardinals' ballpark.

"Pretty soon you've got a half-billion, maybe $600 million, package," Richardson said. "In tough economic times, that is hard to swallow."

With the multi-million dollar salaries ballplayers make, Richardson said Missourians aren't sympathetic to the Cardinals' request.

"I just don't think folks in rural Missouri want to support the lifestyles of professional athletes," Richardson said. "That's the gist of it: Owners want a ballpark so they can make more money and pay higher salaries."

State Sen. Bill Foster, R-Poplar Bluff, expressed a similar sentiment.

"Unless the owners convince people who live in my district, there is no way I'm going to vote for it," Foster said. "I don't think they stand a chance of doing that in my opinion."

The Cardinals' proposal calls for revenue generated by the team above what the state currently gets to go toward paying off bonds to finance the new ballpark. No money would come from state coffers until 2005.

However, that isn't sufficient to sway Crowell.

"I'll listen to any proposal, but I have severe reservations on making, for all intents and purposes, the St. Louis Cardinals a tax exempt organization," Crowell said.