JEFFERSON CITY - In the face of a statewide budget crisis, Missouri senators spent much of Tuesday gathered in small work sessions to have what Sen. Jason Crowell, R-Cape Girardeau, called "one of the most fascinating and intensely honest discussions this government needs to have."
The eight groups met to review more than 1,500 e-mailed suggestions from Missourians on how to cut the budget. They were reviewed alongside suggestions from legislators and agency officials, some of which are already proposed as legislation.
Senate President Pro Tem Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph, said the process was a more "informal" method of seeking budget solutions with more of a "give-and-take" between legislators and agency officials than is normally seen in committee hearings.
Four senators on the education workshop sifted through 103 constituent e-mails and talked to education officials to find suggestions to improve education in Missouri.
Many e-mails suggested downsizing the bureaucracy within the Elementary and Secondary Education Department, as well as government in general. Sen. Gary Nodler, R-Joplin, said he thought a quotation from an old colleague would summarize his view on overgrown bureaucracies.
"Bureaucrats are like cockroaches: it's not what they consume, it's what they get into or mess up," Nodler said.
The downsizing ideas come in light of Gov. Jay Nixon's recommendation to combine Education Department and the Higher Education Department. Jeff Harris, Nixon's legislative director, said a million dollars could be saved in administrative costs if the two departments were to combine.
One e-mail suggested eliminating the large bureaucracy within Education Department, which employs 1,750 people. Another e-mail suggested Missouri should stop accepting funds from the federal government for higher education in order to rid the state of the bureaucracy.
The four senators, education officials and constituent e-mails also suggested:
Another Senate work session focused on finding ways to reduce the state prison head count by 2,000.
"We can't afford, with the amount of money taxpayers are sending us, to keep all these people in prison," said the work group's chair, Sen. Matt Bartle, R-Jackson County. "It's just the cold hard reality."
Bob McCulloch, the St. Louis County prosecuting attorney, pointed out the discrepancy between state reimbursement rates. According to McCulloch, if he keeps an offender in a county prison and then sends him or her to a state prison, the county is reimbursed for the offender's stay. However if the offender is not sent to a state prison and merely released after a certain amount of time, the county is not reimbursed for the cost.
"I'd be happy to keep this guy in my jail," McCulloch said, "but I have to send him to state jail to get reimbursed."
Bartle referred to this reimbursement practice of "penalizing counties" as a "terribly perverse system" and said re-working it was "a no-brainer."
Other suggestions included setting a formula that would put a cap on the amount of non-violent offenders a county could send to state prisons, an option that didn't resonate well with a few county prosecutors.
"Do I let the child molester out, the drug dealer out, the murderer out?" asked Mercer County Prosecutor John Young. "I'm already hearing from my county that we don't have enough money. I can't control the crimes committed in my county ... I can't just say, 'We're having a cap on crime right now, so stop!'"
Missouri Supreme Court Justice Mike Wolff told the four senators that the parole system has a "really good gap" between their official guidelines and the amount of offenders actually released. According to Wolff, who is also the chairman of the state Sentencing Advisory Commission, parole officers exercise their own discretion, which is often more cautious than the guidelines set in place.
"If everyone who was eligible for probation and parole got probation and parole, we would have 2,000 less prisoners," Bartle said.
Another suggestion was to raise criminal fines. Bartle said criminal fines have not increased or been adjusted for inflation since 1979. The work group estimated $27 million could be raised from higher fines.
Bartle said the "No. 1 citizen input" he received was not about higher fines or reimbursement issues but from those against prison amenities like cable television. According to citizen e-mails, many Missourians said they felt prisoners received unnecessary luxuries, a sentiment Bartle described as "public angst."
The Missouri Corrections Department had a different take on the matter.
"Cable is a management tool for our staff. If the prisoners can watch football on Sunday, it's a lot easier to manage [them]," Matt Sturm, the legislation liaison for the Corrections Department said. "If there's no activity for them, they're fighting each other or they're fighting us."
In a workshop focusing on the state's social services, senators spoke with the heads of the departments of Mental Health, Health and Senior Services and Social Services about the possibility of merging the three departments. Department of Social Services Director Ronald Levy said his agency has been looking into the possibility of privatizing child support enforcement, which is now conducted by about 800 state employees.
In late afternoon, the chairs of the eight work groups presented their findings to an informal session of the Senate. No votes were taken by the Senate on the proposals.
Shields told his colleagues that staff would try to find bills working its way through the legislature in its remaining seven weeks that could be vehicles for some of the proposals and look for ideas that could be offered as suggestions to the executive branch for executive orders to state agencies.