State budget approval faces contentious road

By Ezra Bitterman, Missouri News Network
Posted 2/20/24

JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri lawmakers have one responsibility every year: pass a budget.

It requires a long, arduous process where funding requests from every state department are heard.

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State budget approval faces contentious road


JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri lawmakers have one responsibility every year: pass a budget.

It requires a long, arduous process where funding requests from every state department are heard.

Each department’s report is typically more than 1,000 pages. The Department of Social Services’s request is 2,987 pages, almost two times the size of “Clarissa: Or the History of a Young Lady,” the longest book written in the English language.

How these funding requests are filled affects how state programs function.

The budget determines whether all kids can be bused to school, how much teachers are paid, the amount of money each of Missouri’s public colleges are allotted, the pay for over 44,000 state employees and the expansion of the entire length of Interstate 70 to three lanes, to name a few of its many implications.

An important step in the process happened Tuesday as the budget bills were read in the House chamber. They can now be assigned to the House Budget Committee to start making their way through the House and on to the Senate. All annual appropriations bills start in the House.

Sen. Lincoln Hough, R-Springfield, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, sees the budget as essential to a working state government.

“(The budget) is about a functioning state government. This isn’t about the firebrand of today’s politician who’s looking for the 12-second soundbite that says taxation is theft and government sucks,” said Hough, who has served on the committee for five years.

“This is about your law enforcement being funded,” Hough said. “This is about firefighters showing up when you need them. This is about our highways and our bridges being taken care of. This is about teachers in the classroom. This is about caregivers who are looking after the elderly in our communities. This is just responsible, conservative governing and making sure the state works for people that we all represent.”

Last month, Gov. Mike Parson unveiled his $52.7 billion budget proposal in his State of the State address. The proposal would increase teacher and state worker pay while filling most department budget requests. After a governor provides a budget proposal, it comes down to the House and Senate budget committees to shape what will become law. The governor has no formal involvement until it’s time for the bills to be signed and they are able to veto specific budget items.

The chair of the House Budget Committee, Rep. Cody Smith, R-Carthage, has already expressed some pushback against the governor’s record spending proposal amid a state revenue slowdown.

“When (Parson) talks about increases to ongoing spending, I’m curious about where he’s finding those revenues within the state budget,” Smith said in his office after the speech.

Hough generally supports the governor’s proposed spending level and is behind raising teacher and state worker pay. He said he is also planning on prioritizing an increase in funding for state healthcare providers that serve the elderly and disabled.

The state’s finances are in an interesting position as a large tax cut enacted in 2022 has hampered tax revenues, yet billions in federal COVID-19 relief and infrastructure improvement money is still available. That federal money is appropriated mainly to large, one-time projects like expanding broadband internet access to rural Missourians.

State revenues rose in the last few years thanks to a strong economy and inflation, but have flattened out in the past year and are expected to remain that way in 2025.

When it comes to passing the budget, Senate Republicans have a math problem.

Eighteen votes are needed to pass something out of the Missouri Senate. Republicans make up 24 seats to 10 held by Democrats.

The kicker is that six of the 24 Republicans are part of the Freedom Caucus, a far-right group that supports reducing the size of government. They’re also short another one or two senators who often vote with the Freedom Caucus on budget bills.

Last year, seven members did not vote on the Senate budget bills. Democrats joined the 17 Republicans who voted to pass the budget, and the crisis was averted.

Put simply, without Freedom Caucus votes, Republicans need Democrats to pass this constitutionally mandated piece of legislation.

“It’s in the back of our minds that we have all the Democrats decided one day, yeah, (Republican leadership) aren’t treating us good, we’re going to vote ‘no’ on the budget. Then we’re going to have a special session on the budget,” said Senate President Pro Tem Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, when asked about the leverage Democrats have in budget discussions. “So that calculation is not particularly fun for us, but it’s real.”

Sen. Lauren Arthur, D-Kansas City, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, noted that a collective priority of the Democratic caucus for the budget is an increase in the Missouri Child Care Subsidy. She aligned with Hough in general support for the governor’s spending proposal.

Freedom Caucus member Sen. Bill Eigel, R-Weldon Spring, who voted against most of last year’s budget bills, is taking a strong stance on cutting spending this year.

“I’ll be opposing (the governor’s) budget, and we’re going to be looking at where we can cut aggressively from that budget,” he said. Eigel, who is running for Missouri governor, also criticized how rapidly state spending has increased over the last few years.

Sen. Denny Hoskins, R-Warrensburg, was the lone Freedom Caucus member on the Senate Appropriations Committee. Rowden removed him from the committee as punishment for bogging down Senate activity with filibusters.

Rep. Peter Merideth, D-St. Louis, who is the ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee, said he thinks Republican leadership would like to get the budget into the Senate earlier this year to allow time to wrestle with the Freedom Caucus.

Smith contended that while he’s trying to get the budget out of the House earlier this year, the process will not be less rigorous. Hough added that while having the budget bills in the Senate sooner rather than later would be good, it’s not more important than a deliberative discussion.