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Fiscal conservatives resurrect effort to impose state spending cap in Missouri

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 30, 2013 - Just days after Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon outlined plans for spending the additional revenue coming into state coffers, some legislators are resurrecting a proposed constitutional amendment to curb such spending.

The proposed ballot initiative, HJR17, would ask voters to impose a lid to restrict spending growth to 3 percent, plus inflation and population increases, says the chief sponsor, state Rep. Eric Burlison, R-Springfield.

The cosponsors include House Speaker Tim Jones, R-Eureka. The aim is to put the proposal on the 2014 statewide ballot.

Burlison said the proposal is similar to one that passed the state House last session but died in the Senate. (Click here to read the Columbia Tribune's analysis of the 2012 proposal.)

One key difference, Burlison said, is this proposal would not exempt education spending from the cap. The version that passed the House last year did.

Another change may be a higher-profile involvement by the Missouri chapter of Americans for Prosperity, a low-tax, low-government-spending group with ties to the wealthy Koch brothers. The state director is Patrick Werner, a former aide to now retired U.S. Sen. Christopher “Kit” Bond, R-Mo.

The state AFP had issued a statement lauding Burlison’s introduction of the proposed amendment. Werner said in an interview that the state chapter has dramatically increased its Missouri membership, now at 50,000, and hopes as a result to have a bigger influence on passing the spending limit and other favored proposals.

Various conservative legislators have proposed such a spending cap for years. Werner noted that last year’s version was the most successful and among the first bills passed by the Missouri House.

The concern this time, said Werner, is that Nixon, a Democrat, is going to increase state spending dramatically since Missouri is starting to see some positive growth after several years of income declines.

During Monday's state of the state address, the governor called for spending $150 million more on education in the next fiscal year, which begins July 1, because of projected growth over 3 percent.

Since 2009, Nixon has had to cut more than $1 billion from state budgets, including some for education, because of the economic downturn.

Werner said that AFP is involved in similar spending-cap efforts in other states, notably Texas, where Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican, has voiced some support.

Burlison said that Nixon wasn’t his chief target. Rather, he said that one of his  aims for Missouri was to set up special state reserve accounts where certain percentages of any additional state income could be stored and then used during lean budget years.  He noted that one of the cap’s backers is state Rep. Chris Kelly, D-Columbia, generally respected on state budget issues.

Backers say the proposed reserve funds would be more accessible than an exisiting state account, commonly called the Rainy Day Fund, that has so many restrictions that Nixon didn’t even tap it after the deadly tornado hit Joplin in 2011.

Critics contend that the real aim of the spending cap is to keep state spending low. During last year’s debate, opponents contended that such spending restrictions would prevent state government from restoring money to programs, including education, that saw dramatic cuts during the past three years.

Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.