JEFFERSON CITY- In a marathon day-long session that lasted until the late evening, Missouri's Senate approved Tuesday a package of bills that would substantially reduce on-going state budget obligations.
The upper chamber advanced plans to consolidate government agencies, handle reduced funding to local schools, cut teacher benefits and reduce prison populations in an effort to address budget shortfalls expected to approach $1 billion in the next two years.
The various measures were given first round approval the day before the Senate is expected to take up a budget plan for the next fiscal year that would cut $500 million from the governor's original spending plan presented to lawmakers in January.
Most of the day was spent debating potential cuts to education, the state's largest single expenditure.
State Sen. Jason Crowell, R-Cape Girardeau, said because lawmakers have resisted cuts in other areas through the budget process, lawmakers would be faced with "gutting" education funding as the end of the session approaches.
"We don't have the willpower to make reforms elsewhere," Crowell said.
Senate President Pro Tem Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph, said those in state government need to live "within our means."
"In a fiscal crisis, it forces you to make decisions you would not make when you're flush with money and also focuses you on state government," Shields said. "That's exactly what we did today."
Education Cuts Dominated Senate Debate
The Senate spent the majority of its time Tuesday debating a bill proposed by Shields that would cut more funding for K-12 education from the appropriations bill that was moved out of committee last week.
As approved by the Senate, the measure would remove guaranteed funding for the Career Ladder program, which provides supplemental income for teachers who pursue professional growth programs. The bill would also cut funds provided to schools for summer school attendance.
The bill would also alter the school Foundation Formula that is used to calculate how state funds are divided among the state's school districts. Under the bill, if the amount that the state appropriates for education falls below the level appropriated during the current fiscal year (as expected for the next budget year), the 16 wealthiest school districts would receive a 10 percent cut in how much they receive from the formula.
School districts deemed "hold harmless" -- which means the local contribution to public education is larger than the state's contribution -- would receive a cut in funding under the Senate plan. Half of those districts in the St. Louis area.
State Sen. Eric Schmitt, R-St. Louis County, said the school districts would be subjected to a "Robin Hood scenario" from the cuts.
"Philosophically, this idea that you just arbitrarily pick this 16 and penalize the additional ten percent just makes no sense to me," Schmitt said.
State Sen. Jane Cunningham, R-St. Louis County, proposed an amendment to remove that provision from the bill, but the amendment was voted down 10-22.
Crowell offered an amendment to the bill that would remove funding for summer school from the Foundation Formula entirely and make it subject to appropriations, arguing that removing it from the formula would reduce the amount needed to fully fund the formula.
His amendment was later withdrawn, and the bill received first-round approval. The measure faces a final Senate vote before going to the House.
In a General Laws committee meeting held earlier Tuesday, a resolution to combine the Elementary and Secondary Education Department and the Higher Education Department into one department was unanimously approved.
Shields said the resolution would replace the State Board of Education and Coordinating Board for Higher Education with a new board. The board would include members from each congressional district, as well as four at-large members with backgrounds in higher education, elementary and secondary education, early childhood development and economic development.
Although the consolidation presents an opportunity for the state to save money, Shields said the main goal of the department merger is to provide a smoother transition for students from their first day of school to college graduation.
"A lot of people think it's budgetary," Shields said in the committee meeting. "We're going to create a seamless education system from pre-K to the workforce. To do that in a manner that's consistent with lifelong learning, we're going to provide education along the entire continuum."
Shields said a definite estimate of cost savings from the consolidation has yet to be calculated, but he said the state could save $1 million with administrative cuts in the Higher Education Department.
If the joint resolution passes the Senate, it would then go to the House. Because the education department consolidation would alter wording in the Missouri Constitution, the bill would then go to Missouri voters in the November election.
Combining the water and highway patrols
Later in the full Senate, Shields continued the Senate leadership's "rebooting state government" plan in a bill, which he said will save more than $2 million in immediate cuts with long-term cost savings in increased department efficiency.
The bill would put the State Water Patrol under the jurisdiction of the State Highway Patrol in the Public Safety Department. Shields said uniform staff jobs would not be cut under the change, only administrative cuts brought on by the consolidation.
Sen. Jim Lembke, R-St. Louis County, said consolidating state departments and agencies isn't enough to salvage Missouri from the unprecedented budget deficit.
"We don't have enough departments to merge to get us to the $500 million dollars we need," Lembke said.
Sen. Tim Green, D-St. Louis County, said he thinks all government departments and agencies need to cooperate with the essential changes in government structure, even if those changes are small.
"We are talking about out of a $8 billion budget and, in the next year and a half, cuts of about $2 billion," Green said. "There are small steps being taken. I think the responsible thing for the water patrol and highway patrol is to step up to the plate."
Shields' bill would also move the Division of Alcohol and Tobacco Control from the control of the Public Safety Department to the Revenue Department, a move he said could save approximately $1 million by cutting jobs. Local law enforcement would be put in charge of enforcing tobacco and alcohol laws.
Another provision in the bill would create a committee to study the pros and cons of merging the Health and Senior Services, Mental Health and Social Services departments into one all-encompassing department.
Like the education bill, the law enforcement reorganization proposal requires a final Senate vote before moving to the House.
Before the marathon session had finished, the Senate gave first round approval in late evening to a measure designed to reduce the state prison population.
Among the provisions, the bill would preclude first-time, non-violent felons from serving time in state-financed prisons. Instead, they would be put into treatment programs, probation or county jails.
During a two-year period, the bill is expected to cut the prison population by about 2,000 inmates. The current state prison population is more than 30,000.