April 23, 2014

House and Senate budget makers spar over surplus ahead of conference

Key Republicans in the House and the Senate are squaring off over the next state spending plan days before the two chambers will meet in conference to work out their differences on it.

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kurt Schafer (left) and House Budget Committee Chairman Rick Stream (photos courtesy; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kurt Schafer (left) and House Budget Committee Chairman Rick Stream (photos courtesy; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

House budget makers want to stick to the Consensus Revenue Estimate, an estimate for state revenue that the Senate, House and Governor agree to before the session begins to base their budget proposals on.

House Speaker Tim Jones (R-Eureka) says to exceed that estimate is to break tradition.

“The CRE is there for a reason,” Jones says. “It’s there to keep all three parties honest to a number agreed upon at the beginning of the process and that number should not be a moving goal post just because the revenue forecast changed.”

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kurt Schaefer (R-Columbia) says that argument is “absurd” and accuses the House members of either not understanding or not wanting to acknowledge how the process works.

He says state revenue has gained more than $400 million more than projected, and says the legislature needs to account for it.

“That’s not saying ‘spend all the money’,” he says, “and especially not spend it in the operating budget, but if the money exists you can’t bury your head in the sand and act like it doesn’t exist, give it back to the Governor, who literally within one day will make that money disappear into the state agencies, and we’ll have no idea where it went.”

Schaefer says that money should be spent on capital needs, such as the building of a new state mental hospital in Fulton that estimates say will cost $211 million.

House Budget Committee Chairman Rick Stream (R-Kirkwood) says in an earlier conversation with Senate he was not asked about the idea of using the revenue surplus for one-time capital needs.

“That was not proposed,” Stream says. “… If we’re talking about one-time capital improvements, that’s in a separate bill and we’ll discuss that after we pass the budget.”

Schaefer says his chamber’s budget proposal is more transparent because all but four estimated amounts or “E’s” have been removed, so it more accurately reflects what is actually spent by government agencies. He also accuses Rep. Chris Kelly (D-Columbia), who also spoke on the House floor in defense of holding to the CRE, of wanting to take the Estimate in order to give the Governor the chance to spend the $400 million that has come in above projection.

“That’s a political determination, and I understand that, but I think it would be irresponsible of us … with the public’s money to not be transparent,”  Kelly says.

Cuts to federal money for Public Safety still an issue 

Jones continued on the House floor his criticism of cuts of more than $20 million in federal emergency response grants. He says that jeopardizes protections for Missourians and goes beyond the issues regarding the scanning, retaining and sharing with the federal government of personal information from Missourians by state agencies.

“I think we have to be very concerned in our zeal for the truth to not get to a point where we start to look shrill about things or obsessed to the point where we end up cutting off our arm to spite our face,” Jones says. “I think this may have been an instance, it appears, where the bridge went too far. I hope it was a mistake on behalf of the Senate.”

Schaefer says that cut was no mistake.

“When we had our hearings on that federal, pass-through money, [The Department of] Public Safety could not tell us what they were spending that money on,” Schaefer says. “It would be patently absurd for the General Assembly to give spending authority to any agency, whether it’s state money or federal money, who can not come in and tell the appropriators for the public how they’re spending the money.”

Schaefer says he hopes to get answers from Public Safety regarding how that money is spent when the Department appears again in front of his committee at noon on Wednesday.

The House and Senate will go to conference later this week to sort out the differences in their budget proposals.