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Concerns Rise As Missouri's Legislature Is Struggling To Fund Basic Services

Feb 9, 2018
Originally published on February 9, 2018 10:12 pm
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Lately, Congress has shown us that one-party control of government does not make agreeing on a budget any easier. Lawmakers in Missouri are finding out the same thing. For the first time in modern history, the state has a Republican governor and a GOP majority in the Legislature. And some politicians are calling for deep tax cuts even as the same path plunged its neighbor Kansas into a budget crisis. St. Louis Public Radio's Jason Rosenbaum reports.

JASON ROSENBAUM, BYLINE: Both Governor Eric Greitens and Republican legislators want to pass tax cuts during this session. But even with Republicans holding unprecedented power over Missouri's government, conservative lawmakers like Senator Ron Richard aren't that excited about more tax cuts. He represents a district close to the Kansas border which went through a tax-cutting binge in 2012.

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RON RICHARD: I like low taxes, too, but I'm going to be very careful to make sure that we're not endangering this institution, this building, the taxpayers after I'm gone. I don't want a Brownback thing.

ROSENBAUM: That Brownback thing is a reference to Sam Brownback, who was governor of Kansas when he ushered in numerous tax cuts. They blew such a big hole in that state's budget that lawmakers there ended up having to raise taxes. Lawmakers here are nervous because reversing tax cuts in Missouri is very difficult. Most have to go to a statewide vote.

Still, Missouri's push for tax cuts isn't all that unusual. According to the Center for Public Integrity, 10 states and the District of Columbia have cut taxes since the so-called Kansas experiment started in 2012. So when State Senator Bill Eigel made an income tax proposal, he paired it with a gas tax hike.

BILL EIGEL: And as our population grows, that's going to broaden the tax base that we're drawing from in the first place. I think that's the best thing we can do.

ROSENBAUM: Yet it's not just Kansas's tax cut hangover that's giving lawmakers here pause. For the past couple of years, Missouri took in less revenue than needed to fully fund higher education and health care programs. Democrats like Representative Crystal Quade attribute Missouri's funding woes to its decision to enact other income and business tax cuts over the past two decades.

CRYSTAL QUADE: I think folks want us to just take a breath and take a minute and try to figure out what's going on. You know, Missouri has one of the lowest unemployment rates, but yet we still are in a budget crisis.

ROSENBAUM: And there's another reason why Missouri lawmakers aren't jumping at the chance to pass Greitens' tax cut - his standing with the Legislature. It was always on shaky ground, especially after he said fellow Republicans were acting like third-graders for not passing more bills last year.

Now both Republicans and Democrats here are calling for the governor to step down after he admitted to having an extramarital affair before he was elected. He strongly denied allegations that he blackmailed the woman into concealing the infidelity. Governor Greitens says he won't leave office and instead is barnstorming the state to promote his tax cut proposal.

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ERIC GREITENS: We're watching out for the tax dollars of the people of Missouri and also making the tough choices that are necessary to make sure that we don't burden Missouri's children with that.

ROSENBAUM: Whether Republicans here want to help the governor achieve his policy goals is an open question now. As more tax cuts are being proposed, Republican lawmakers appear to be keeping one eye on their state's budget and another on Kansas' failed tax-cutting experiment. For NPR News, I'm Jason Rosenbaum in St. Louis.

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