Missouri session begins with money woes

Missouri lawmakers returned to the state Capitol on Wednesday facing an estimated $500 million budget shortfall, a still slumping economy and lingering questions about the fate of two of the state’s largest school districts.

While legislative leaders vowed to overcome the political disagreements that have derailed their efforts in the past, key differences remain.

Republicans hold commanding majorities in both the House and Senate, but that didn’t stop intraparty squabbles from dooming the prospects of a massive economic development bill in a special session called by Gov. Jay Nixon just two months ago.

But in opening remarks to their colleagues and in subsequent press conferences Wednesday, both House Speaker Steve Tilley, a Perryville Republican, and Senate President Pro Tem Rob Mayer, a Dexter Republican, vowed greater cooperation between the chambers.

The best example appeared to be a pledge not to raise taxes, including the state’s lowest-in-the-nation tax on cigarettes.

“Now is not the time to be talking about increasing the tax burden on any segment of our society,” Mayer said, a sentiment echoed later in the day by Tilley.

“The people of Missouri expect and deserve a government that stays out of their pockets” and lives within its means, Tilley added.

The agenda for the 2012 session will be long, but the only item lawmakers are constitutionally required to pass this year is a budget. The recession, an end to federal stimulus funding, and increased costs associated with Medicare has created a budget shortfall estimated at between $425 million and $500 million.

The process for closing that gap will start next Monday, when the Senate Appropriations Committee will begin hearings to give the public and state agencies an opportunity to have their voices heard.

Then on Jan. 17, Nixon is expected to lay out his vision for a budget in his annual State of the State address.

“I’m looking forward to a State of the State address where (the governor) will put forward his vision and make some difficult decisions, not solutions where we have borrowing schemes,” said Senate Majority Leader Tom Dempsey, a St. Charles Republican. “A budget based on realistic revenue and cuts that are real.”

Republicans in each chamber also are embracing a series of bills backed by business groups aimed at reforming the state’s workers compensation system, and altering employment laws to make it more difficult to sue employers for discrimination. While neither side contends that these changes would directly create jobs, the goal is to improve the state’s business environment, Mayer said.

Education reform, however, could be more contentious. House and Senate leaders are making it a priority going into the session, including an overhaul of the state’s education funding formula, and addressing a law that allows students in unaccredited school districts — such as Kansas City’s — to transfer to accredited districts in adjacent areas.

Tilley, however, insisted that no education legislation will pass unless controversial proposals such as vouchers and charter school expansion also are parts of the deal.

“The reality is that we’ve tried to achieve some meaningful reforms, and the groups who keep saying ‘no’ to everything just keep saying ‘no,’^” Tilley said. “So we haven’t been able to get over the hill on comprehensive education reform. This may present a window where we can do it.”

But on Wednesday, Democrats — outnumbered 106 to 57 in the House and 26 to eight in the Senate — slammed Republicans for failing to pass a jobs bill during the last special session and focusing on “anti-worker” legislation now that they’ve returned to Jefferson City.

“After two wasted legislative sessions in a row, Missourians won’t tolerate a third,” said House Minority Leader Mike Talboy, a Kansas City Democrat. “Being in charge isn’t the same as governing, and majority Republicans need to start governing.”

Senate Minority Leader Victor Callahan, an Independence Democrat, said his party will focus on ensuring that lawmakers don’t end up balancing the budget “on the backs of those who can least afford it.”

Republicans need to budge on their pledge not to raise any taxes, Talboy added, pointing specifically at the state’s cigarette tax and a loophole that exempts online purchases from sales tax. He said that focusing only on cutting the budget, instead of finding ways of increasing revenues, will only result in long-term damage to the state’s economy.

“You cannot cut your way to prosperity,” Tallboy said.