Critics accuse Republican leadership in the Missouri legislature of ramming through the state’s FY 16 budget proposal with not enough debate and in a cloud of secrecy. Republican leaders are dismissing those criticisms.
House Democrats released a statement saying the Republican majority, “jammed through a $26-billion budget that was negotiated in secret by GOP leaders, given perfunctory approval by a legislative committee in the dead of night and then forced through both the House and Senate hours later without providing lawmakers any opportunity to review it before being forced to vote.”
Senate President Tom Dempsey (R-St. Charles) said the accusation that the budget was rushed is groundless.
“If you’re going to say that we were rushing the budget then you’re not taking account that we start before session even begins, working on it,” Dempsey told reporters.
Much of the criticism focuses on the work of the conference committees, one for each of the 13 budget bills, made up of members of the House and Senate, who attempt to strike an agreement between the two chambers’ versions of each bill. Many of the decisions resulting from that effort are revealed and voted on in a meeting consisting of members of all of those committees, though not all discussions leading up to that meeting are public.
House Speaker John Diehl, Junior (R-Town and Country) said the way that and conferences on other bills operate is open to the extent required by law.
“There are numerous lines and there are 162 House members that have interest in what’s in the budget, and there are 34 senators that have interest in the budget, and members are constantly communicating with each other as to what they want and what they don’t want in the budget. They refer that back to their chairman, who sometimes talk to me and I talk to leadership in the Senate or chairman about what priorities are,” said Diehl. “So that process will continue just as it does on every bill.”
Dempsey said of the way the budget conference process has played out, “That happens for policy bills as well.”
That budget conference committee hearing for the current session was held Wednesday night into Thursday morning. Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kurt Schaefer (R-Columbia) told reporters asking about the process and the criticism of it, “I’ve been talking to [House Budget Committee Chairman Tom Flanigan] now for quite a long time, I’ve kept my committee members informed.”
Schaefer also told reporters he was told a story by former state representative Chris Kelly, who once served as a House Budget Chairman.
“When he was the budget chairman, and Roger Wilson was the appropriations chairman – you know they’re both from Columbia – and they wrote the budget entirely one night while the two of them played a game of pool, and they actually got down to a position where they made some final decisions based on who got the next shot, on what would happen in the budget lines,” said Schaefer. “So, if that gives you any indication of how this budget has been done for decades … because that was quite a long time ago.”
Asked whether anything that has been done in the budget process potentially violates the state’s open records and meetings law, Schaefer said, “Absolutely not.”
Republicans made it a goal to get the 13 bills that make up the budget to Governor Jay Nixon (D) ahead of schedule this year because getting them to him early enough means he only has 15 days to act on them. Nixon could sign them, veto all or part of each of them, or let them become law without taking any action.
If the budget went to Nixon in the final 15 days of session, he would have 45 days to act on it. By getting it two him two weeks ahead of the constitutional deadline, Republican leadership would have time to consider attempting to override before the end of the session any vetoes he might issue, rather than having to wait until the veto session in September.
Schaefer believes the state constitution would also only require a simple majority of lawmakers’ votes to overturn a veto during the session, as opposed to the two-thirds majority usually required.
House Democrats say that doesn’t leave Nixon enough time to do a “meaningful and thorough” review of a $26-billion dollar plan.
“Republicans have abandoned fiscal responsibility in favor of political theater,” House Minority Leader Jake Hummel (D-St. Louis) wrote. “With $26-billion of taxpayer money at stake, you would think GOP leaders would treat the process with the seriousness it deserves. Apparently you would be wrong.”
For his part, Governor Nixon has not criticized the legislature’s accelerated schedule since it sent him the budget. In a statement from his office Thursday, Nixon said, “I thank the General Assembly for delivering the budget on time and answering my call to make responsible investments in K-12 classrooms, college affordability and mental health. We will give the budget a careful, line-by-line review and take any actions necessary to ensure we maintain our strict fiscal discipline, protect our AAA credit rating and grow our economy.”
That budget is effective for the year that begins July 1.