Missouri Sen. Kevin Engler had a lot to say about the current financial state of Missouri at last week’s 4th Friday program at Mineral Area Colllege — and none of it was pretty.
“People are asking me how the budget process is going,” said Engler before a full house at the lunchtime meeting held in the North College Center. “It’s real bad.”
He said the state last year received less revenue than it did in 2008, when the largest economic crisis since the Great Depression hit the United States. While on paper it appears that the state is “only” $600 million shy of its budget needs, that is only on the surface. Dig deeper and the situation becomes much worse.
Engler noted the lack of any more federal stimulus money — something he said is probably a good thing — and the “$100-something million” of state funds paid out to assist Joplin’s recovery from a May 22 tornado. There’s a lot less money available for state legislators to work with.
“The governor said we will see $300 million savings in social programs by ridding them of inefficiencies and fat,” said Senator Engler. “The thing is that we cut the inefficiencies and fat out of the state budget several years ago. Now we’re cutting into meat.”
Add to that the $100 million lost by the state through the governor’s proposed tax amnesty program and what Engler describes as “$400 to $500 million in phantom cuts” and the state has a potential disaster on its hands.
“Wait until after November and the governor will have to cut hundreds of millions of dollars from the state budget,” warned the senator.
He said it may be necessary to remove 4,000 state workers from the payroll, either through layoffs or attrition. That’s in addition to those who have already lost their jobs over the past few years. Engler also offered the possibility of closing state prisons and mental health facilities. According to the senator, such moves, in the end, are self-defeating since the unemployed don’t pay state taxes and do have to utilize state services such as unemployment and other social services. Still, Engler said reality must be faced.
“This is not a situation that we can spend our way out of,” he said. “We will have to grow our way out of this.”
Engler suggested several things he believes must occur for the economy to improve so that states like Missouri can continue meeting the needs of its people.
“We need to get out of the way of commercial businesses,” he said. “There are simply too many rules and regulations. We have created such an environment where businesses are afraid to hire or expand. Companies today are lean and mean. They have money, but they are unwilling to do anything with it when they have no idea what the future will be.”
Engler admitted that another area of serious concern for the economic recovery is that of rising prices at the pump.
“The oil and gas situation could be devastating,” he said. “The EPA and environmentalists are making it difficult for companies wanting to utilize the shale oil in the Dakotas and the Obama administration has allowed foreign companies to take the lead in off-shore drilling. They have absolutely no strategy to deal with this. They need to understand that for at least the next 25 years we’re going to be a petroleum-based society.”
Engler also suggested expanding suppliers in the area, such as TG Missouri Corp in Perryville, to build up the state’s economy. To help bring more manufacturing companies to the area, he said the area needs to begin capitalizing on Highway 67 becoming a four lane.
“Why can’t we be a transportation hub?” he asked.
Engler said another important step the state should take is the targeting of industries it excels in — for example, the medical and financial fields.
Regarding the legislature’s support of higher and secondary education in the state, the senator was blunt and to the point.
“When we’ve cut everything else, we’re going to have to look at education and start cutting there, too,” he said. “I know that the Parents As Teachers program will probably be cut, probably some from transportation, and there are moves to end tenure for teachers.”
He offered an example he’d heard of a teacher who nodded off repeatedly in class, but couldn’t be removed from her job because she was tenured.
“That’s the kind of teacher that should be removed from the classroom and if tenure is keeping us from doing so, maybe we need to take a look at it,” Engler said. “I think we’re going to see some bigger fights about education in the next four to five weeks.”
He ended his comments on the budget by returning to the poor financial situation suffered by some of those working for the state of Missouri.
“It’s a real shame when state employees qualify for government assistance, but many of them do,” he admitted.
Engler spoke about several bills he’s working on in the state Senate.
The first dealt with electronic drug trafficking. The senator said that prescription drug abuse is the fastest growing form of drug abuse in Missouri, but he said passage of the bill is being hampered by some unethical doctors who don’t want to see it passed.
The second bill regards landlord rights and would require that tenants evicted from a property vacate that property within 10 days.
“It’s not going to go through this year, but at least it’s starting the conversation,” he said.
On the topic of redistricting, Sen. Engler offered little positive news, describing it as “a complete mess from start to finish.”
He said that many representatives don’t even know what cities comprise their districts anymore. While Engler said some corrections might be made in the future, in the short term it was going to be very confusing for both the politicians and the voters.
Kevin R. Jenkins is a reporter for the Daily Journal and can be reached at 573-431-2010, ext. 114 or at email@example.com.
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