by Rudi Keller, Missouri Independent
Supporters of the only attempt to add money to the state’s record operating budget during Senate debate Tuesday also complained loudest that the state is spending too much.
As the chamber worked through 13 bills spending $45.1 billion in the coming fiscal year, members of the conservative caucus often voted against the bills but offered no cuts. That means the bills return to the Missouri House with a bottom line $1.2 billion larger than when they left.
The conservative caucus, seven Republican senators out of a GOP caucus of 24, has shown repeatedly this year it is willing to bring the chamber to a halt for days, or even weeks, if it cannot prevail on a vote.
Those were not the tactics on Tuesday. In fact, when members of the caucus spoke during approximately four hours of debate they were usually brief, until the bulk of the spending had been approved.
Sen. Mike Moon, R-Ash Grove, held up the higher education budget until he was assured no state money was being used by the University of Missouri to study COVID-19 vaccine doses for young children. Sen. Rick Brattin, R-Harrisonville, complained about increased subsidies for Amtrak.
They saved their harshest criticisms until after Brattin offered the amendment to restore $500,000 cut from the budget of Attorney General Eric Schmitt.
The funding for Schmitt’s office was not part of his original budget request. It was added after his office lobbied House members for the extra funding and taken out in the Senate Appropriations Committee on a motion by Sen. Lincoln Hough, R-Springfield.
Brattin argued Schmitt’s office should be rewarded for the lawsuits it has instituted against school districts and local governments over COVID-19 restrictions.
“I just found it to be poor form to go and remove a half a million dollars from that very budget to be able to do that,” he said.
That brought Sen. Bill Eigel, R-Weldon Spring, to his feet to denounce the spending plan as “the death knell of fiscal conservatism” in the state.
The budget, he said, funds “everything from dinosaur museums for kids to every wasteful instance of spending that could be thought of by 34 members.”
Appropriations Chairman Dan Hegeman, R-Cosby, noted on the floor that Schmitt’s office doesn’t use its entire appropriation now and has vacant positions.
“I don’t know that expanding the AG’s office is needed because it seems like the resources are available for him to do what he wants already,” Hegeman said.
Brattin’s amendment failed on a 9-22 vote that was a mirror image of the roll call votes on the 13 spending bills. Conservative caucus members supported the amendment but voted against the budget bills, while most Republicans, joined by Democrats, opposed Brattin’s amendment and voted for the budget bills.
“This is probably one of the most progressive budgets we have ever done,” Sen. Doug Beck, D-St. Louis County, said.
The spending plan for the year that begins July 1 has some big differences from the House version. Major items for negotiations to come include:
- $214 million added to fully fund the state’s 75% share of school transportation costs;
- $2.5 billion shifted into Medicaid service lines such as hospital care or office visits that represents the projected cost of covering working-age adults under Obamacare. The House put it in a single budget line.
- $500 million requested by Gov. Mike Parson as a deposit to the Missouri State Employees Retirement System. The Senate approved it while the House set up a five-year plan to build up the fund.
- $100 million for early retirement of state debt. The House increased it to $276 million.
There are also about $80 million in small appropriations added by the Senate, mainly projects earmarked for a particular member’s district.
After the debate, Senate Majority Leader Caleb Rowden of Columbia dismissed the complaints of conservative caucus members. The state budget is growing because of rapid increases in federal spending that passes through the treasury, he noted.
“You can either yell about the process or be a part of the process,” Rowden said. “Some folks just find it easier to call into question the people who do most of the work and if that’s the position they take, that’s fine.”
Hough, who did not speak during debate on Brattin’s amendment, said afterward he thought the timing was odd for Eigel to make his complaints.
“I just think it is a little bit ironic that the death of fiscal conservatism lies at the feet of people who want to add money to people’s budgets,” Hough said.
The vote on the amendment – and the budget bills themselves – showed trying to change the spending plan would have been pointless, Eigel said.
“I could have spent the day offering amendments that would have gone down in flames,” he said. “I don’t think that would have been productive for the Senate floor.”