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Legislature outspends Nixon in new budget, cuts out mansion chef

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 6, 2011 - A day before the legal deadline, the Missouri General Assembly adjourned for a long weekend after passing on Thursday a $23.2 billion budget for the state government's fiscal year that begins July 1.

Despite the influx of $500 million-plus in federal stimulus money, the new budget features a number of notable reductions from the current fiscal year -- including a $45,000-a-year salary for the executive chef at the Governor's Mansion

For example:

  • The Department of Higher Education's allocation is roughly 6.2 percent lower, with a new budget of $1.15 billion;
  • The Department of Transportation is down 14 percent, to $2.26 billion;
  • The Office of Administration is to be cut 14 percent, compared to last year's budget.

The rare increases include the state Department of Agriculture, which received a 20.8 percent increase. That includes $1.09 million to hire 10 new inspectors for the state's dog-breeding facilities in response to a compromise measure that replaces some of the provisions of Proposition B, last year's initiative petition to regulate dog breeders.
The Department of Social Services, which manages the federal and state Medicaid program, is to receive a 6.1 percent boost.

State Senate Budget Committee chairman Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, noted that some trims -- such as for higher education -- were still less than what Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, had proposed.

The smaller cuts amount to an additional $12 million, compared to Nixon's plan, for Missouri's two- and four-year colleges and universities, and $10 million more in transportation money for Missouri's public school districts instructing children in kindergarten through 12th grade.

"By also working to help shore up funding for K-12 transportation, we help prevent local schools from having to raid funding for our classrooms or other dollars directed to education," Schaefer said in a statement after Thursday's votes.

The legislature also voted to maintain the state's public-school funding formula at its current level, made possible with an additional $189 million in federal school aid.

Legislators Disagree About Revenue Increases

The passage of the budget sparked a mixed reaction from lawmakers. Some Republicans -- such as House Budget Chairman Ryan Silvey, R-suburban Kansas City -- said the budget was the best they could do under the state's tight fiscal circumstances.

"Holding things level was pretty much the goal in a lot of cases, and we were happy to do that with education," Silvey said. "Next year it looks like with the expiration of some (federal) stabilization funds that we're probably going to be back into ... making cuts."

House Democrats, meanwhile, said the GOP-controlled General Assembly failed to confront the state's long-term economic problems by choosing short-term spending cuts rather than figuring out ways to increase state revenue.

State Rep. Mary Still, D-Columbia, said the cuts in higher-education spending were harmful in the long run, particularly since Missouri lagged behind other states in funding for its colleges and universities. "This is hurting us, it's hurting our economy," Still said.

State Rep. Sara Lampe, D-Springfield and the ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee, asked, "Are we willing to have the political will to make the decisions about where we get revenue in this state? It is my hope that we will."

But Silvey said any tax increases -- such as proposals to hike the state's taxes on tobacco products -- continue to be non-starters.

Referring to Republican leaders, he said, "It's something that we philosophically don't believe is the right thing to do when people are figuring out how to do more with less in their own homes. With gas prices skyrocketing, with people wondering if they have a job next week or not, that's not the time to ask them to contribute more to the government."

Governor's Mansion Chef Has Been Target for Years

That's where the salary for the Governor's Mansion's chef fits in. Silvey said this was the third year that he had sought the cut -- but the first time he succeeded in getting it through both chambers.

"That was something that just leapt off the page for me that the governor would have a personal chef," Silvey said. "I go back home, I start talking to my constituents in coffee houses. When we're talking about reducing services to taxpayers, when people find out that the governor has a personal chef, they're irate in most cases that their tax money is paying for that."

Nixon's staff declined comment. The chef also prepares food for public and private events hosted at the Mansion, some legislators said privately, adding that it was expected that the fees charged for such events might be increased to cover the chef's pay and benefits. The point is that the taxpayers shouldn't pay for such a salary, a Senate spokeswoman said.

The new budget also allocates $200,000 for the governor's travel and bars him from billing other state agencies or departments for his transportation. Nixon -- like former Gov. Bob Holden -- has had a significant portion of his travel costs covered by other departments or agencies. Republicans have objected to that practice, although Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, a Republican expected to challenge Nixon in 2012, also had a handful of plane flights covered the same way.

Schaefer said that Missouri's state government remains in better fiscal shape than many other states.

"Every report you look at puts Missouri in the top five states in the country as far as being fiscally sound and responsible," said Schaefer, citing the state's AAA bond rating.

"In large part, that's because we have a constitutional amendment that forces us to balance the budget every year. And also, it's because we've made prudent decisions over the years not to invest in things that require ongoing money that we don't have."

Nixon Predicts Additional Trims

Because the governor has line-item veto power, Nixon can delete items from the General Assembly's budget plan, but cannot add additional money not allocated by lawmakers.

The governor chose to be conciliatory in a statement issued after Thursday's votes, although he estimated that the General Assembly's budget for the 2012 fiscal year exceeded projected income by $30 million.

"I appreciate the legislators on both sides of the aisle who came together to pass the budget by their constitutional deadline," Nixon said. "Once again, we've worked together in a bipartisan manner to finish this job on time. Based on the budget passed by the General Assembly and legislation already signed into law, we are projecting a budget gap of at least $30 million. I will analyze this budget in its entirety and make the expenditure restrictions necessary to make it balance. As we move forward, I will continue to make the decisions necessary to keep the state's fiscal house in order."

No mention of the chef.

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.
Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.