After uneventful veto session, Missouri lawmakers brace for next year's budget woes
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 16, 2009 - While this year's veto session passed without any substantive action, lawmakers are bracing for what could be a very difficult battle next year over the state's budget.
Gov. Jay Nixon vetoed a number of bills over the summer, including bills to repeal restrictions against riding motorcycles without a helmet and to allow the state's Public Defender Commission to have greater control of its caseload. The first-term Democratic chief executive also struck out several line items in the state's budget in an effort to prepare for a difficult budgetary year.
Even though Republicans control both chambers of the legislature, GOP leaders expressed doubts last week about overturning Nixon's vetoes. Senate President Pro Tem Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph, and House Majority Leader Steven Tilley, R-Perryville, both said last week that couldn't reach a two-thirds threshold to overrule Nixon.
This reality led a number of legislators to abandon plans to override Nixon. Sen. Jack Goodman -- a Mt. Vernon Republican who sponsored the public defender bill -- said last week that he would instead look to next year to deal with the issue. Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, also decided not to pursue a veto override of the repeal of the helmet law.
In fact, the Senate decided to leave without any attempts to override a single veto.
But even though this year's veto session didn't yield any legislative actions, lawmakers are already talking about next year's session. On the top of the agenda: how to deal with a particularly challenging budget year, whether to require insurance to treat ailments related to autism and how to attract more business to the state.
All of these issues will be coming up during an election year, a time that often makes it more difficult to pass controversial pieces of legislation.
Lawmakers generally agree that the state's budget will be the dominant issue of the 2010 session.
This year's budget debate was eased a bit when lawmakers allocated hundreds of millions of dollars worth of federal stimulus dollars. While some money had to be spent on specific programs such as K-12 education, lawmakers had latitude over how to spend so-called "stabilization" stimulus money.
Lawmakers involved in the budgetary process say there's almost no chance that projects funded with stimulus dollars will get funded next year.
"It's not so encouraging on the capital improvement side," said Rep. Ryan Silvey, R-Clay County, who is in charge of a House committee tracking stimulus spending. "The governor wants to spend the remaining money filling holes in the budget. And I think the budget chairman and the [appropriations chairman] have indicated that the situation is fairly bleak from a budgetary standpoint."
Some legislators, such as Sen. Scott Rupp, R-Wentzville, say the stimulus money will be a nonfactor in the upcoming budget year. Rupp, the chairman of a committee overseeing federal stimulus dollars, said chunks of projected cash have been sapped away over time. And he doesn't expect there will be enough stimulus cash to plug what could be even bigger budgetary holes in 2010.
"The downturn in the economy was more severe than we thought," Rupp said. "The recovery is not happening very quickly. And the revenue projections are down about another 7 percent." The remaining stimulus money, he said, "will be used to plug holes, but those holes are big, and more cuts are going to be on the horizon."
Shields said that the budget is going to "dominate the entire discussion," adding that "we continue to see the revenue picture drop and that's going to be a challenge for us."
A preview of the potential fight for resources was on full display after the veto session came to an end. Democrats held a press conference criticizing a letter from House Budget Chairman Allen Icet, R-Wildwood, and Senate Appropriations Chairman Gary Nodler, R-Joplin, concerning the Career Ladder program.
Icet and Nodler wrote in June that funding for the program -- which provides financial boosts for teachers who do work outside their specified area -- couldn't be assured for participants for the 2009-2010 school year and beyond.
House Minority Leader Paul LeVota, D-Independence, characterized the letter as a cut in teacher pay and a "threat to the future of our children." Icet said the letter was a warning that the program could get cut -- and an indication of the perilous nature of the state's fiscal situation.
"This letter was merely to act as a warning that this program, along with all state programs, would be closely examined due to our severe decline in revenue," Icet wrote in a letter dated Sept. 15.
AUTISM AND ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT
Lawmakers pointed to several other issues as potential priorities.
Nixon spent part of the summer stumping for legislation to require insurance companies to cover diagnosis and treatment of autism spectrum disorder. While a bill passed the Missouri Senate, it did not receive a vote in the Missouri House.
Rupp, who sponsored that legislation, said he expects a bill will be passed early on in next year's session.
"The comments coming out of the House ... are that they are going to pass a bill," Rupp said. "It's going to be something done very quickly. We've just got to make sure it's a good quality bill. And the governor expressed to me today that he would not sign a bill that does nothing. So he wants it to be substantive, like what we passed out of the Senate last year."
Nixon said earlier this summer that any bill would have to force health insurance carriers to provide coverage for the diagnosis and treatment of autism, include Applied Behavioral Analysis therapy. It also could not limit the number of visits by an individual to an autism service provider.
House Speaker Ron Richard, R-Joplin, predicted less contention this time around. "We're going to take care of that quickly," he said.
Richard and Shields also expect another economic development package.
Shields also said health care could become an issue again. Lawmakers failed to pass legislation supported by Nixon that would have bolstered payments from hospitals to expand Medicaid eligibility.
"We're in a wait-and-see mode right now," Shields said. "We just don't know what the federal government is going to do to us or for us when it comes to health care reform."
CHANGING OF THE GUARD
While the Senate is widely expected to stay in Republican hands, there will be a fierce fight for control of the House in 2010.
Republicans hold an eight-seat majority in the lower chamber, and both sides say control could be up for grabs due to the large number of open seats caused primarily by term limits.
Already, both parties have designated members to become House speaker depending on the outcome of next year's election cycle. Richard is term-limited and is seeking a vacant state Senate in southwest Missouri.
Tilleywas selected as the Republican Speaker-designee, while state Rep. Mike Talboy, D-Kansas City, was picked as the Democratic counterpart.
Tilley said the plan is to do a "good job" legislating before letting the people decide the next speaker of the House through elections.
"If you put our team and our record in a 50-50 situation, I'm confident that we're going to do very, very well," Tilley said.
He also hinted that the national atmosphere might tilt more to the Republican side.
"Our recruiting has been second-to-none," Tilley said. "And I think you can thank [House Speaker] Nancy Pelosi and [Senate Majority Leader] Harry Reid for that. I think they've done a fantastic job of alienating moderate, reasonable-minded people."
Talboy said bringing Democrats back to majority party status in the Missouri House would require finding good candidates, raising a lot of money and putting forward the right message.
He noted that Democrats have been incrementally gaining seats since the 2006 election cycle.
"I think you look at the direction we've gone over the last several years, there's a lot of turning around to do," Talboy said.
Jason Rosenbaum, a freelance writer in Columbia, Mo., covers state government.