The legislature’s top responsibility enters its final push this week, as Friday is the constitutional deadline for it to propose a budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
Beginning tomorrow, selected House and Senate members will work to negotiate a compromise between each chamber’s budget proposals. Any compromise the two sides reach must then be voted on by 6 p.m. Friday to be sent to Governor Eric Greitens (R).
The House proposed that the state should for the first time fully support the formula for funding K-12 schools. Early discussions in the Senate suggested it would do otherwise, but it decided to follow suit. That was the top priority for House Budget Committee Chairman Scott Fitzpatrick (R-Shell Knob), and with both chambers agreeing on it, he says his priority now is clear.
“A balanced budget,” Fitzpatrick said.
Getting there by Friday, however, will be challenging. The difference between the two chambers’ budget proposals is somewhere beyond $100-million.
Fitzpatrick said much of that difference is in projects the Senate added when they were planning not to fully fund the K-12 education formula. When the Senate voted to instead fund the formula, it didn’t remove those projects.
Another substantial difference between the two proposals concerns “Es.” For several years, legislative budget makers have used an “E” at the end of a budget line to represent an open-ended spending limit. This was often used in places where predicting how much would be needed over the course of a fiscal year was particularly difficult, and it would allow an entity to exceed the budgeted amount if necessary. The effort to remove Es began several years ago, and the House proposed a budget that completed that removal.
The Senate restored some Es to various places in the budget. Fitzpatrick wants to remove those in the final compromise. He said their presence in the Senate’s proposal also distorts how far apart the House and Senate plans are.
“So like for the budget reserve fund, we put a $25.5-million number in there. The Senate put the E back on and made it $1, so that makes their budget actually appear $25.5-million smaller,” said Fitzpatrick. “So really to compare apples to apples you have to add $25-million to their budget to see the difference.”
Fitzpatrick said he doesn’t know how many more such examples exist throughout the budget plans.
One line of particular importance to Fitzpatrick and others in the House is the state’s legal expense fund, which has had an E on it. That line has been the focus of great legislative attention this year after the revelation that the Department of Corrections has settled millions of dollars in lawsuits in recent years in cases of employee harassment, discrimination, and retaliation.
With an E on that line – the line from which comes the money for all settlements with the state – Corrections never had to come before a legislative committee to explain what was behind the multiple, large settlements. Lawmakers say that kept them in the dark as to the environment and repeated issues in the Corrections Department.
The House’s proposal replaced that line with lines in the budgets of each state agency. That meant any future settlement would come out of the involved agency’s budget, and if it had so many that it exceeded what the legislature appropriated, it would have to explain why to lawmakers. The Senate returned the legal expense fund to being a single line in the budget. Fitzpatrick and House members strongly want to see the House’s version restored.
House and Senate conferees begin meeting Tuesday morning. Their goal is to have a compromise ready for each chamber to vote on by Friday. Failure to meet the state Constitution’s deadline could mean legislators will have to meet in a special session, after the regular session ends on May 20, to complete a budget.