JEFFERSON CITY, Mo.
Opponents turned out Wednesday against Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon's plan to help balance the budget by dipping into special state funds dedicated to such things as airport improvements and spinal cord injury research.
Nixon wants to transfer a total of $27 million out of 23 special accounts to help plug a hole in the proposed 2011 budget. But a bill authorizing the transfers drew opposition during a Senate committee hearing from some Republican lawmakers and from various groups that benefit from the funds.
Many of the special accounts are financed by professional licensing fees or dedicated revenue sources. Opponents said taking money out of the accounts for use in Missouri's general budget was unfair to those whose paid into the funds.
"To me this is kind of a hidden tax -- robbing Peter to pay Paul," said Bruce Wylie, executive director of the Missouri Society of Professional Engineers. "This just isn't the answer for the desperate times that we're in."
The fund for the Missouri Board for Architects, Professional Engineers, Professional Land Surveyors and Landscape Architects would lose more than $1.6 million under the governor's plan.
The Senate Appropriations Committee, which is scheduled to vote on the bill Thursday, is looking at a variety of ways beyond spending cuts to help balance the budget.
Nixon already has vetoed or cut more than $700 million from this year's $23.7 billion budget for state operations and capital improvements. But more cuts are likely both this year and next, because tax revenues are falling at twice the rate as had been projected.
State budget officials reviewed Missouri's more than 500 accounting funds in search of any excess money that could be swept into the general revenue pool.
Nixon's proposal -- embodied in legislation by Sen. Tim Green, D-St. Louis -- targets only those funds that consistently have surpluses and could function without some of their money, said budget director Linda Luebbering.
"The only reason we're looking at this piece of legislation is because of the severity of the situation we're facing," Luebbering told lawmakers.
The plan would take $2.7 million of the $9.7 million currently in the state's aviation trust fund. The account already has $7 million committed to projects, and an additional $8.1 million in projects that have been given the go-ahead for engineering studies pending the availability of money, said Brian Weiler, director of multi-modal operations for the Missouri Department of Transportation.
Among the projects jeopardized by a money transfer would be improvements at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport for a proposed Chinese cargo hub and a new taxiway at Rosecrans Memorial Airport in St. Joseph, which is used by the military.
The legislation would take $4 million from a fund for spinal cord injury research at the University of Missouri, which is financed by a $2 court fee on all criminal, traffic or infraction cases. The legislation is necessary because the spinal cord fund -- like many of the others being targeted -- currently is protected under state law from having its money taken for other purposes.
If lawmakers decide to take money out of dedicated funds, they could go even further than proposed by Nixon. An analysis conducted by the Senate Appropriations Committee staff at Green's request identified up to $143 million that could be transferred from dedicated funds while still leaving a balance sufficient to cover twice the average amount of money spent from those funds during the past five years.