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Missouri Senate avoids impasse over budget to make constitutional deadline

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Lincoln Hough speaks during the budget debate Thursday in the Missouri Senate. (Rudi Keller/Missouri Independent)
Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Lincoln Hough speaks during the budget debate Thursday in the Missouri Senate. (Rudi Keller/Missouri Independent)

The $51.7 billion spending plan for the coming year is about halfway between the House-passed budget and the proposal crafted in the Senate Appropriations Committee.

With passage of a $51.7 billion budget Thursday, the Missouri Senate beat the constitutional deadline by 24 hours after a debate that left Republican leaders exhausted but satisfied.

A 41-hour filibuster stalled all work last week – including planned budget debates on a committee-passed spending plan. To make the deadline, Senate Appropriations Chairman Lincoln Hough began negotiating with House Budget Committee Chairman Cody Smith last week on what should be removed from the Senate plan, and what the House would accept from it, to get bills that would pass both chambers.

The 17 spending bills passed during Thursday’s eight-hour debate – one for the remainder of the current fiscal year, the rest for the year that begins July 1 – will be up for a vote in the House on Friday.

But even before the Senate began voting, Gov. Mike Parson said the rushed work means his budget office hasn’t had time to review it. He told reporters he will not leave large unfunded needs for his successor to cover.

The budget needs to have the money required for the coming year because he leaves office in January, Parson said.

“We’re not going to do the largest supplemental (budget) in our state’s history,” Parson said. “I just don’t plan on doing that because all you’re doing then is just passing it on to the other legislators that are going to be coming in with the next governor.”

Hough had to navigate a Senate that has been dysfunctional all year because of Republican factional fighting in order to put the upper chamber’s stamp on a spending plan that arrived from the House a week later than normal.

Most of the debate on Thursday was consumed by members of the Missouri Freedom Caucus, who argued the budget spent too much, circumvented the regular process and gave legislators little time to scrutinize it.

Hough also had to endure criticism that delays in getting the budget on the Senate floor put him in the weakest position for negotiations with the House of any recent appropriations chairman.

“This was begging by the Senate appropriations chair to the House chair to take a budget to avoid a special session,” said Sen. Bill Eigel a Weldon Spring Republican and candidate for governor. “The Senate chair realized he had no leverage.”

Hough, a candidate for lieutenant governor, defended the budget he crafted during intense talks with Smith.

“This budget is not built around the mentality you have, which is just to beat somebody into submission,” he said to Eigel.

The total budget is about halfway between the $50.7 billion spending plan passed in the House last month and the $53 billion proposal Hough and the Senate Appropriations Committee approved. It is also about $1 billion less than the budget proposed in January by Parson.

The bills call for spending $15.3 billion in general revenue, with $14.6 billion for agency operations. That is about $287 million more than Parson proposed and $424 million more than the House-approved budget.

The budget for the current fiscal year, including the supplemental appropriations approved in the Senate, is $53.5 billion, with $15.8 billion in general revenue spending.

The budget includes a 3.2% pay raise for state employees, a 3% boost in funding for state colleges and universities and $727.5 million for improvements to Interstate 44, half from general revenue and half from new state debt.

Most of the money Hough added to the budget to boost salaries at agencies that provide support for adults with developmental disabilities did not survive negotiations. Instead of a $325 million boost to those programs to allow agencies to pay $17 an hour, the increase was pared back to $74 million. Whether that will allow any pay increases was unclear in the hours after the Senate votes.

There were seven to nine Republican votes against all but two of the bills. The five members of the Freedom Caucus were often joined in opposition to the spending bills by Sens. Mary Elizabeth Coleman of Arnold, who is running for secretary of state, Jill Carter of Joplin, who quit the Freedom Caucus last week, and Mike Moon of Ash Grove.

That left 15 to 17 members of the Republican majority in favor of the bills, meaning none of the spending bills would have passed without the help of Democrats.

Senate Minority Leader John Rizzo was quick to note that votes from his caucus made the difference.

“They needed our votes on every single bill outside of two, and they even voted against the agriculture budget, which was pretty interesting for us,” Rizzo said. “ So Ag funding was propped up by Democrats this year, so the agricultural community, your welcome. Thank Democrats.”

Prior to the debate, members of the Freedom Caucus demanded that general revenue spending not exceed the projected revenue for the coming year of $13.2 billion. Hough insisted that there is enough money in construction and other projects, as well as in agency funding designated as one-time appropriations, to meet that.

The difference between the projected revenue and the planned spending will come from a massive surplus that has accumulated in the treasury. In all funds that can be spent like general revenue, it is about $6.4 billion.

During debate, Eigel said the surplus should not be used to balance the budget.

“Balance means that the revenues coming in equal the revenues going out,” Eigel said. “Cash in your savings account is not a revenue item.”

The Missouri Constitution makes it clear that accumulated surpluses can be included in the budget plan.

Demanding a budget target regardless of other resources or the needs of the state is an argument designed to win political points, not govern responsibly, Rizzo said to reporters after the budget debate.

He said he expects Parson to eventually call a special session to add money so programs can operate through the year.

“Some of the Freedom Caucus members were pretty insistent on getting to a certain number,” Rizzo said, “and I think the way that they got to that certain number will probably make sure that there’s a special session sometime in the future, maybe in the fall.”