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Capitol Perspectives: Budget War Stories

Phill Brooks
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With the past week’s budget filibuster in Missouri’s Senate, I thought some of the war stories of past years would be of interest.

In the context of the long history of budget-making shenanigans, what happened in the Senate was truly remarkable. It was the first time I’ve seen a group of senators from the majority party openly challenge the chamber’s Appropriations Committee and its leadership on the budget.

I wonder about the precedent that has been set when a small group of senators, just nine of 34 members, can use the filibuster as a vehicle to force changes in the budget.

An open, public fight in the Senate about its position on the budget is quite different from when I first started as a statehouse reporter. Back then, the House of Representatives and Senate treated their budget positions as very high-stakes poker games in which there was an incredible level of bluffing. If a member had a budget request, it would be discussed privately with the budget chair.

Both the House and Senate would make cuts they did not really intend to keep in the budget. Those cuts would be used to help their negotiations with the other chamber. One chamber would offer to restore a cut it did not really care about in return for something from the other chamber.

To preserve the bluff, neither chamber openly debated its positions — for fear of exposing its hand. It was a bluff game in which members of the budget conference committees would go to great lengths to maintain: acting out with temper tantrums, threatening that negotiations were over and walking out of meetings.

In recent years, however, there is far less gamesmanship. The process has become more civilized.

But the days of wildness sure were more fun to cover.

In the old days, Senate budget committee members occasionally would meet in the late evening in the restaurant tucked into the back of a local and historic bar, Ecco Lounge. They’d order a huge bowl of the boiled shrimp for which Ecco Lounge is famous. Munching on shrimp, washed down, of course, with drinks, the state’s budget would be pieced together.

Ecco Lounge provided a relaxed environment for a degree of candor that can’t be found in the stuffy, formal committee rooms of the Capitol. At Ecco, lawmakers let down their hair. The budget might be high-stakes poker, but it was not a mean-spirited process like we heard out of the Senate last week. Instead, there was a cheerful, almost playfulness about it that put a smile on my face as I watched this governmental theater being acted out.

One of the more bizarre budget incidents arose decades ago when the House Appropriations Committee chairman did not like a building construction budget his committee had approved. So he simply absconded with the budget. He took the one and only formal copy of the bill out of the Capitol, stopping further action.

Another strange budget story involved higher education while Brice Ratchford was president of the University of Missouri System.

The Senate, angry at Ratchford for his lobbying efforts, made a deep cut in the university budget approved by the House.

During a break in one evening budget session, Ratchford called a university supporter on the committee to make a private offer to resign as president if the committee restored the cuts.

The supporter was then-Sen. Bob Young, a Democrat from St. Louis County. When the committee returned, Young reported the conversation, thinking only committee members were present. But then Young looked up and saw me. Oops. It was supposed to be a secret offer to the committee alone.

Not only was Young upset the story was going to get out, so too was Ratchford when I called him for comment. They both realized that the offer to effectively sell the university presidency for an appropriations increase would be explosive if made public … which it was.

Young, to whom Ratchford communicated his offer, was known as a “guardian angel” — a legislator who protected the interests of a state government agency or program — for the university.

Young was not an alumnus of MU or any other university. A soldier who landed at Utah Beach in Normandy on D-Day, he returned to the U.S. to become a pipefitter in St. Louis County. Despite never having attended a university, Young developed a deep loyalty to MU.

The university has a campus in St. Louis County which he help establish. But I sensed there was something more to it than that. There was a sparkle in his eye when he would talk about college students and higher education.

Legislative guardian angels such as Young used to be major factors in the budget process. These were two-way relationships in which a guardian angel also could be a harsh taskmaster for an agency, giving it what might be called “tough love.”

Although the legislature of today continues to be filled with those who are passionate advocates of various government programs, I no longer sense the presence of guardian angels. Even the term is no longer used.

It’s a factor in term limits, I think. It takes more than a few years to develop the mutual trust required for the kind of relationship that existed between Young and Ratchford’s University of Missouri.

Bob Young, who later was elected to Congress, passed away in 2007. Brice Ratchford passed away in 1997.

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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