Budget Week in the Missouri House

The House worked through our $27.3 billion state budget this week. By the time the budget gets to the House floor, the big picture items are nearly set. For example, Medicaid (which receives by far the most money) is an entitlement. It gets what it gets; the legislature can’t cut its ample share of the pie.

Education spending is another example. Every year the Budget Committee determines the amount that will be spent on the Foundation Formula for K-12 education. And once that budget bill hits the floor, that appropriation is the third-rail. Anyone who tries to reduce it on the House floor should brace themselves for 750 volts.

Here’s the big picture for the budget (see the pie chart below for an illustration):

First, it’s not in the chart, but this includes a two percent pay increase for state employees. Slow but steady progress is the best path for us to lift state employee pay out of the national cellar. This raise isn’t as much as I might like, but it is continued progress.

Second, the budget includes $9.8 billion in Medicaid spending, a four percent increase from last year. That’s more than one out of every three dollars in the state budget that goes to health care for Missourians who are elderly, disabled, or live in poverty.

Education is our second largest category. The state budget includes $6 billion for K-12 education and $1.3 billion for higher education. Next comes transportation, which, funded nearly entirely through dedicated taxes, receives $2.2 billion in funds.

The transportation budget includes the Highway Patrol. In recent weeks, some people have talked about moving Highway Patrol out of the transportation budget. Senate Budget Chairman Kurt Schaefer disagrees and so do I. I think it’s a bad idea and would fight against it.

Even though the big picture items are complete, there is still plenty of debate and work left to do once the budget hits the floor. This week I successfully made two amendments to the budget.

The first amendment I added transfers $1 million from the Columbia campus of the University of Missouri to Lincoln University for the explicit purpose of being used for agricultural research in conjunction with its status as a land-grant university. This amendment brought Lincoln’s total agriculture research appropriation from $0 recommended by Gov. Nixon to $2 million. In effect, however, it will be double that because Lincoln is eligible for matching federal grants.

The debate on this amendment was intense and the vote was close – 83 to 78. It would not have passed without bi-partisan support and the help of other representatives in floor debate. In particular, Rep. Josh Peters (D-St. Louis) helped by pointing out that Mizzou leadership had a $1.8 discretionary spending account last year. Locally, Rep. Travis Fitzwater (R-Holts Summit) helped move votes our way by talking about the impact Lincoln has on students within his district.

Lincoln is eligible for up to $5.6 million in matching grants from the federal government so I’m hopeful that the Senate will add even more to this line item.

The second amendment I added transfers responsibility for paying the current bond payments on the building formerly known as the Edward Jones Dome from the Office of Administration to the State Treasurer.

Due to my columns alone, this newspaper has probably paid for more ink about the stadium saga than any other issue affecting state government. Since I’ve probably spent 5,000 or more words on it already, I won’t detail how that transpired. However, it’s fair to say that no one in the legislature wants it to happen again.

By transferring responsibility for making the payment from OA to our independent State Treasurer Clint Zweifel, we are effectively appointing a trusted escrow agent to ensure that the money is held and paid for the purpose the legislature desires. This avoids a standoff on whether to make the appropriation at all. It should also remove any thought Gov. Nixon might have about unilaterally indebting a generation of Missourians for funding a new stadium with your tax dollars.

Finally, the House budget reduces appropriations to the University of Missouri system by $8.7 million. This is less than two percent of their total appropriation from state government and less than a 0.28 percent reduction in the system’s overall $3.1 billion budget. Just to be clear, that’s not a typo. For every thousand dollars in the UM System budget, the Missouri House cut $2.80, a big cup of coffee.

Some have alleged these reductions are overly punitive, vindictive, and will harm students. I disagree. The most obvious reason is that the overall reduction is tiny compared with the system’s overall budget. The second reason is that the reduction relates to performance. Since last fall’s conflagrations, Mizzou has suffered significant enrollment reductions for next fall. Students are quite literally voting with their feet and leaving campus. With fewer students, there should be reduced appropriations.

Third, and finally, sometimes you have to tell the people and institutions you love that they’re traveling down the wrong path. To my knowledge, I’m one of only two members of the Missouri House who are double-graduates of Mizzou – first as an undergrad and then in law school. I’m far from a Mizzou-hater. I am a proud alumnus. Over the last seven months, I’ve been dismayed to see our state’s flagship university dragged through the muck in the national media. Unfortunately, I think the university’s leadership has largely created this problem and needs to take further steps to fix it.