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The Wednesday afternoon House budget hearings were political theater designed to help freshman Republican representatives Denny Hoskins, R–Warrensburg, and Scott Largent, R–Clinton, get re-elected. I know, the last election was only five months ago, but it’s never too soon for reps who barely squeaked out victories to start looking more magnanimous than they are.

As with any good script, the scene must be set. Let’s call Budget Chairman Allen Icet the playwright–because he is. And here’s how he set up the conflict of the play. He cut funds from a very popular social service budget: Meals on Wheels. And then he let Hoskins and Largent move to restore the cuts.

Now the rules of adding money for a given cause to the budget require that corresponding cuts be found elsewhere first. So a representative must first find “decreases” and get the body to approve them before he can even propose any “increases”. Largent and Hoskins proposed cutting set amounts of money from each of the thirteen departments in state government. And as it happened, when Democrats looked closely, those sums exactly corresponded to the salaries of the thirteen department liaisons.

Democrats were incensed for two reasons. First and foremost was that the original cuts to Meals on Wheels need not have happened. Stimulus funds are coming, and, unless Missouri gets so poor that it turns to cannibalism, we’re not going to seriously slash funds for a program as effective and well thought of as Meals on Wheels. Icet knows that. He just wanted to give his boys a chance to shine by putting the funds back in. No real damage was going to be done by this bit of theater, because the liaisons would almost surely be restored in the Senate.

Democrats were also gnashing their teeth over the scriptwriting because the liaison positions supposedly being cut were being called “government lobbyist” positions. Here were the Republicans proposing to cut some of those nasty beasts called lobbyists out of government salaries. Doing so–for the sake of Meals on Wheels–made Largent and Hoskins sound like paragons of ethics.

On the surface.

But these weren’t, like, AT&T lobbyists trying to deep six net neutrality for the corporate gain of their employers. No, these were “lobbyists” only in the sense that Nixon–and Matt Blunt had them too–asks them to lobby the legislature by explaining to its members the reasons for the governor’s budget requests. Otherwise, legislators get incomprehensible sets of numbers for billions on billions of dollars, without any grasp of what the governor is trying to achieve.

Democrats would prefer to call these people liaisons, though, because that’s what they are. When a constituent calls his representative or senator, frustrated with lack of progress in dealing with a governmental agency, the legislator puts the person in touch with the liaison from that department, who is often able to sort out the problem. Say a constituent has defaulted on paying his Missouri income taxes, but it’s because he’s been in Iraq and wasn’t receiving the bills. A liaison could help him work out the problem.

It rankled Democrats to be given the role of villain in this bit of theater. If they voted against cutting the lobbyist/liaison positions, they looked as they prefer the welfare of lobbyists to that of needy seniors. If they voted for it, they let Largent and Hoskins walk away as the heroes. And don’t think those two wouldn’t make hay of the vote with their constituents.

To add insult to all this injury, Largent also proposed a decrease of about $75,000 to the Department of Economic Development (DED)–job creation, in other words. Rachel Storch,  D-St. Louis, who has served on the budget committee for five years now, knows that issues of job creation are usually handled in a bipartisan fashion and was surprised to see that cut. Furthermore, because of the vague way Largent proposed it, she suspected he didn’t even know what the money was for.

So she asked him. She walked up to the mike and asked him what it was that he was cutting out of the DED budget. He said he was proposing to cut line 2 out of the budget. I know that much, she responded. You said that. But what is line 2? What are those funds for? Turns out she was right. He didn’t have a clue.

Then Bryan Pratt (if you understand British slang, he couldn’t be better named), R-Blue Springs, took the mike and asked Rachel if she knew what line 2 was. That backfired on him, because:  She did. He didn’t.

Storch pointed out to me that, as long as Icet made it plain what his caucus was to vote for, they were willing to “vote blind.”

In the end, Republicans had their way of course. Party line votes gave Hoskins and Largent the “facts” they need to look all humane and philanthropic to their voter base. So the House wasted several hours playing with popguns and fake swords when this state has real-life budget problems that need dealing with.

And the Senate is left holding the liaison/lobbyist bag.