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Capitol Perspectives: Making the Budget

Phill Brooks
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UPI/Bill Greenblatt

UPI/Bill Greenblatt

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As Missourians prepare for the holiday season, major decisions are being made in Missouri’s statehouse about the state’s multi-billion dollar budget.

They are some of the most important decisions made each year in state government. These decisions will affect the quality of education for your children, the safety of your highways and the ability of the state to provide assistance to those in need and to respond to natural disasters.

The work is being done through the governor’s budget office headed by Linda Luebbering. She’s the director of the division of Budget and Planning.

Luebbering’s office coordinates the process for putting together the budget recommendations that Gov. Jay Nixon will present to lawmakers during his State of the State address in mid-January. During the session, she will be a key liaison with legislators working on the state’s budget.

Luebbering has extensive experience dealing with lawmakers during lean budget years. She was the budget director for Gov. Bob Holden, whose administration faced sever budget shortfalls.

With term limits, the budget decisions made by Luebbering and the governor have taken on far more importance than in the past because Missouri’s General Assembly no longer has a body of lawmakers with decades of budget expertise.

It takes years to really understand the details of a budget that takes up thousands of pages. It takes just as long to recognize the strategies that interest groups and agency officials will use to pad a budget.

Yet, as you read this, the administration is making these budget decisions with little or no public debate.

If the past is any indication, you will not get to see an outline of how the governor proposes to spend that money until after Nixon formally presents his budget plan to lawmakers in mid-January — just four months before lawmakers must pass the budget.

Specific items might be announced earlier, but not the priorities among all of the state’s programs. At least in the past, they’ve not been unveiled earlier.

That is a major departure from the approach taken by Missouri’s first two-term governor, Warren Hearnes.

Back then, Hearnes had what were called “budget appeals hearings.” They ran for a couple days. They were an opportunity for agency officials to “appeal” the budget recommendations that the governor’s budget director had made to the governor.

They were held in public. And because they were held in public, the budget director’s recommendations were public.

It was a tremendous vehicle for helping develop a deeper understanding of the issues in Missouri’s budget.

It also was great political theater for Hearnes. He had been a legislative leader and showed an obvious delight in playing the role of the chairman and chewing a cigar (as I remember) while grilling his own agency officials about their spending.

With some agencies, Hearnes would play the role of the tough budget hawk arguing that limited state finances made it impossible to meet their appeals. With other agencies, the hearings provided Hearnes with the opportunity to display generosity by ultimately overruling his budget director’s recommendations for an agency and recommending a bigger budget.

Over the years, in succeeding administrations, Missouri’s budget-development process has become increasingly secretive. There no longer are public budget appeals hearings.

In fact, recent administrations have not even provided reporters with advance copies of the budget the night before to allow time to study a complicated document that runs hundreds of pages. That stopped soon after a reporter broke the embargo on releasing the budget. It caused a fist fight among two reporters that ultimately led to criminal charges.

Years later, one administration even had a police officer make sure that only reporters attended the budget briefing shortly before the governor presented his budget proposals.

In a way, Hearnes saw the budget process as a public relations tool — either a political tool or a public education tool, depending on your perspective. But succeeding governors have given less public emphasis to the process.

As always, let me know (at column@mdn.org) if you have any comments. If you would like your comments, or a portion of them, included in a future column, let me know and be sure to include your full name in your email. Past columns are available at www.mdn.org/mpacol or here.

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