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Capitol Perspectives: Budget Wars

Phill Brooks
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UPI/Bill Greenblatt

UPI/Bill Greenblatt

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Missouri’s budget process sure has gotten tame since legislative term limits took effect. It’s become downright boring compared to my earlier years as a statehouse reporter.

Before term limits, the budget was at the center of some of the greatest and most entertaining legislative battles that I have seen.

The budget-writing committees were composed of the General Assembly’s most senior members. They had years, even decades, of experience from which they acquired an awe-inspiring level of knowledge about even the most minor of details concerning the state’s multi-billion dollar budget.

They had grudges years in the making that could erupt at any point with the budget. And, they had years of practice at creating great theater.

With little turnover in the legislature, there was a stability in the House and Senate that led to very different ideological perspectives. The House was controlled by liberal spenders while the Senate was controlled by fiscal conservative hawks.

The clash between those two philosophies came in the House-Senate conference committees on the budget. And golly, were those great shows.

Members would pound their fists, throw temper tantrums and storm out of the meetings vowing an agreement on the budget was impossible.

But it was mostly theater with each side trying to bluff the other side into giving in. I used to advise my student reporters to consider it like a poker game with players trying to bluff each other that they had held stronger cards than they really did.

Lucky Cantrell, Don Manford, Norman Merrill, John Russell, Wayne Goode, Marvin Proffer, Al Nilges, Roger Wilson, Mike Lybyer — they were among the budget chairs who were outstanding poker players. I never knew for sure when they were bluffing and when they were really serious about not backing down on an item in the budget.

Back then, each chamber’s budget-writing committee deliberately would stick into the budget items about which members of the committee really did not care. Instead, they were stuck in as negotiating items. But those bogus positions worked as negotiating leverage only if the other chamber’s conference committee members were fooled.

It is part of the reason that the full House and Senate rarely make changes to the committee-recommended budgets. Changes are discussed privately with the committee chairs, rather than debated openly, so as to not expose the budget strategies to the other chamber. “Senator, don’t worry about the cut we recommended in a program you support, we’re not serious about it — we’re just using it to bargain for other items from the House” is how a private discussion might go.

But sometimes the chicanery blew up the budget process. One year, neither side would back down on a family planning funding issue — causing the legislature to fail to get a budget passed on time and forcing the governor to call a special session. In another year, the Senate president pro tem had to fire his appropriations chair when he wouldn’t back down on a budget item.

The process today is far tamer. Part of the reason, I think, is that the ideological gap between the House and Senate is less. There has been a corresponding reduction in institutional rivalry. For example, one of the key members of the Senate Appropriations Committee had chaired the House Budget Committee just last year.

Term-limited legislators lack the depth of understanding to make fundamental changes in the budget. One of my reporters, Wes Duplantier, caculated that the average legislative experience of House Budget Committee members is just 3.4 years. It’s one of the reasons, I think that today many more sections of the legislature’s version of the budget mirror what the governor originally recommended.

I also sense that term limits have restricted the ability of budget-writing legislators to develop an extensive network of informers in state agencies. In the old days, it was nearly impossible for a governor to keep secret how an agency was spending its money.

It’s now much rarer for legislators to uncover agency funding secrets — like Senate Appropriations Chair Kurt Schaefer’s recent discovery of Revenue Department spending relating to retention of personal documents used to get licenses.

It’s not just term limits that has constrained the legislature’s ability to make fundamental changes. Recent administrations have been far less cooperative with legislative budget committees.

During Bob Holden’s administration, agency directors explicitly were ordered not to assist the Republican legislature in crafting a smaller budget that would not require the large tax increases Holden was recommending.

Years earlier, governors ceased holding public hearings in crafting their budget recommendations. Those “budget appeals” hearings were excellent forums to hear the budget details and pleas from the governor’s agency directors. An agency’s budget requests were an open book, even if they differed from the governor’s position.

Now, the administration’s budget plan is treated like a deep state secret until the governor delivers his formal recommendations. Even legislative budget chairs are not clued in until the night the governor unveils his proposals.

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