(I don’t automatically promote diaries by elected officials or candidates, but this one definitely gives some much needed context to the budget process. – promoted by Clark)

I have been watching Missouri politics very closely since 1991 when I was hired as director of a statewide grassroots anti-poverty organization. Changes made in the past few years have greatly damaged the quality of our state’s budget-making process.

Traditionally the governor’s recommendations have been filed as budget bills. There are 13 budget bills, each dealing with a topic or department of government. For example, Budget Bill 2 is elementary and secondary education. Budget Bill 9 is corrections. Etc.

The budget bills were traditionally assigned to the respective appropriation committees. These committees have generally be divided much as they are in 2009: agriculture and natural resources; education; general administration; health, mental health, and social services; public safety and corrections; and transportation and economic development.

Continued below the fold.

In the past, the appropriations committees would “mark up” the budget bills.  The members of the appropriations committee could offer amendments to specific lines of the budget bill, and the committee would have the opportunity to vote on these amendments. Their versions of the bill contained actual numbers, and the amended budget bill they finally passed was sent to the budget committee.  The budget committee could then make further amendments, but they started with the bills as amended by the appropriation committees.

In recent years, with Allen Icet (R-Wildwood) as the Budget Chairman, the budget bills are not the governor’s recommendations.  Instead they are generated by Rep. Icet’s office.  They are not filed at the beginning of session and are not considered by the appropriations committees.  

Instead appropriations committees now merely have informational meetings.  They still take much public testimony, often heart-wrenching stories about where our neighbors are falling through the cracks in the current scheme of things. But instead of having a budget bill to work with, the appropriations committees merely file “reports” with the budget committee. The end result is that:

– citizens who testify at the appropriations hearings have an illusion of access to power, but much less chance of actually impacting on a line item in the budget bill

– appropriations committees are greatly disempowered

– the budget chair has a greatly enhanced role

This year we didn’t see a budget bill with real numbers until March. House bills (HBs) 2, 3, and 4 were not filed until March 2. HBs 6, 7, 8, 9 and 12 were filed on March 3. HB 5 was filed on March 4. HBs 10 and 11 were filed on March 5.

The budget committee had testimony from each department of government on March 3, 4, 5, and 9.  Only departmental staff testified; no members of the public were allowed to testify on any of the budget bills that were filed.

For example, $2.5 million was the proposed cut for Meals on Wheels, a very effective program that provides both nutrition and human contact to senior citizens living at home alone. The bill containing Meals on Wheels was not filed until March 5.  There was no public testimony permitted about the impact of that proposed cut, or any of the other propsed cuts or omissions.

March 11 was the only day that budget members were allowed to offer amendments to the budget bills. This was a marathon session, lasting much of the day and long into the night. The process looked much like the floor process on the budget in that very few Democratic amendments were allowed to pass, but a small number of partial restorations were made.

The  Legislature then went on Spring Break upon adjournment on March 12.  Break ended on March 23, and the Rules Committee (another bad government idea introduced in the Jetton Era) considered the budget bills that day and voted them out of committee.

The House began perfecting the budget the next day (March 24th).  Because the bills did not come out of Rules until March 23rd, the members did not receive copies in their mailboxes until the day we began perfecting the bills. Those of us not on the Budget committee were at a special disadvantage in the floor debate, because we had no time to consult agencies and programs affected by proposed budget cuts to assess the impact of the numbers in the budget.

Because of the degradation of the budget process in the House, the Senate has increased its power over the budget in recent years.  The Senate now rewrites the House bills, because they come out of such a flawed process and contain such bad decisions.

In addition, when members of the public ask where and when they can testify about the impact of proposed cuts in the budget bills, the only available opportunity is in the Senate Budget committee. The Senate has better information about the contents of the actual budget bills because they have public hearings on those bills (bills with real numbers).

To my knowledge, under this recently instituted system, the House versions of the budget bills are the only bills filed, assigned to committee, voted out of committee, and sent to the floor without opportunity for public testimony. The departmental Q & A sessions are helpful, but not an adequate substitute for hearing the voices of Missouri’s citizens.

A ripple effect is that the Senate has much more knowledge and power in the conference committee work that comes after we have a passed House version and a passed Senate version. All of the Senate conferees, three majority and two minority party members, have participated in public hearings and lengthy consideration of the budget bills.    

State representatives are the closest contact any Missouri citizen has to state government.  The elimination of a transparent and democratic budget process is a great loss to Missouri residents. Hopefully voters will demand a return to the old, fairer process in 2010.