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Groups focus on setting state priorities in tough economic times

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 1, 2008 - Warning that the economic downturn could hurt state spending commitments in the current fiscal year as well as the next, several groups are fanning across Missouri this week to call attention to the growing money crisis and to try to find answers as well.

The first of three meetings, called Missouri budget summits, takes place from 8 to 10 a.m. Tuesday at the J.C. Penney Building at the University of Missouri at St. Louis. The next meeting is Wednesday in Springfield and the final one is in Kansas City on Thursday.

Sponsors include the Missouri Budget Project, the St. Louis Business Journal, the Missouri Municipal League, AARP, and business groups in Springfield and Kansas City.

In a recent report, the Budget Project cited a decline in sales and use taxes by 3.3 percent since the summer. The group added that falling revenue could "quite possibly" result in a shortfall in the current fiscal year.

If this occurs, the new governor and Legislature may be faced with taking back money already promised for a range of programs, including higher education and health care.

Amy Blouin, head of the Budget Project, says these first-of-a-kind meetings in advance of the sitting of the new Legislature were to awaken Missourians to the state's deteriorating fiscal health. Blouin founded the Budget Project, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization, in 2003 to analyze state spending and to track how budget changes affect low-income citizens and others who do not normally have lobbyists working for them.

"We want to begin a conversation on what type of state we want, and the services and infrastructure investments we need," she said.

She said state and local political leaders, as well as business and community groups, have been invited to the summits, which will include presentations on health, education and transportation needs throughout Missouri.

Robert Joiner has carved a niche in providing informed reporting about a range of medical issues. He won a Dennis A. Hunt Journalism Award for the Beacon’s "Worlds Apart" series on health-care disparities. His journalism experience includes working at the St. Louis American and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he was a beat reporter, wire editor, editorial writer, columnist, and member of the Washington bureau.