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Capitol Perspectives: The Nixon Administration is Creating a Budget Proposal to Present to Lawmakers

Shelton: Joining me on the phone from Jefferson City is the Dean of the Statehouse Press Corps, Phill Brooks. Phill, let’s talk about how the state budget comes together. And we’re talking about the budget for the fiscal year that begins next July. Governor Nixon’s staff is working on it this month.

Brooks: For all intents and purposes, the budget is largely getting put together now by this administration. The budget office is working on putting together the budget that they’ll propose to the legislature during the governor’s State of the State address in mid-January. It’s going to be a huge issue this upcoming year because legislative budget leaders are saying hundreds of millions of dollars are going to have to be cut out of the budget. This is going to be a very, very dramatic budget process, budget year, if the predictions prove true.

Shelton: As far as the Nixon administration putting together its budget proposal, there are no public hearings or formal opportunities for public input, correct?

Brooks: It’s all in secret. We have no idea what the budget’s going to be like. As much as a barrier the Nixon administration has erected to press coverage of the administration, the secrecy by which the budget is being done has been an evolving pattern that started well before Jay Nixon. I go back to the days when Warren Hearnes was governor. He had a fascinating process. They were called budget appeals hearings. After his budget director had put together the draft proposal for the budget, Warren Hearnes would have a couple of days of public hearings for agency officials to come before him and appeal those recommendations, to make their case for more money. It was a delightful news story. It was a tremendous briefing process for reporters because we had a couple of days in which we got a lot of the details about the budget in a very condensed, intense two days as opposed to budget hearings can run for weeks on end, and they’re happening when the legislature is in session, and you’re torn by 20 different committee hearings you’ve got to be covering on any given day. It was a tremendous process. Warren Hearnes loved it. He’d sit up there, as I recall, and chomp on his cigar, playing the budget hawk, telling agency officials why they couldn’t get more money than they wanted, sometimes lending a sympathetic ear and being the merciful governor with a few agencies. It was great theatre for Warren Hearnes. It was a great reporting tool, and I think the general public benefited from the stories that came out of those hearings. But now it’s all done behind closed doors.

Shelton: As long as I’ve covered state government, the governor’s budget proposal has been kept secret and, in recent years, it seems it’s been very difficult for reporters to get an advance copy the day before so we can review it and have intelligent questions ready for the budget briefing.

Brooks: You probably remember the time when we had a governor who actually had an armed guard outside the budget briefing session to make sure no one but reporters got into the briefing session. The interesting thing about pre-release of the budget, that happened under Hearnes and it was a tremendous benefit for us. The budget is hundreds of pages and to be able to sit down over night, pour over it at your leisure, really helped in the quality of stories, the depth of stories we were able to do on the budget. Now, you don’t get it until right before the governor’s going to give his speech. It leads to, frankly, shallow stories. There is a little bit of a humorous story about giving us an embargoed copy of the budget so we can study it. It led to a fist fight in the press corps. If I remember correctly, it was the Globe Democrat that had broken the embargo and published it ahead of time. The Globe Democrat, which has since gone defunct, was the morning newspaper in St Louis. The Post-Dispatch at the time was an afternoon paper. That caused reporters for each of the papers to get into a fist fight. One person threw a slug at the other, actually broke his glasses, put a glass shard in his eye. It wasn’t particularly serious, but it did lead to a criminal charge. That was the last time we’ve had a fist fight in the press corps.