Restructuring government state senator’s top priority

Legislators taking hard look at governor’s travel expenses.

By EVAN YOUNG

State Sen. Jim Lembke, R-Lemay, says his top priority this legislative session is to find ways to restructure Missouri’s government.

Seven state Senate “Rebooting Government” work groups recently presented their recommendations on how to do just that to Senate President Pro Tem Robert N. Mayer, R-Dexter.

Lembke’s group focused on finding cost savings in the area of general government and the Office of Administration.

“We’re truly looking at a restructuring of the way we do state government to make it more efficient for the taxpayers,” Lembke said during an interview Friday at his district office in Green Park.

The “Rebooting Government” initiative began in 2010, the creation of then-Senate President Pro Tem Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph. Citing the need for legislators to make difficult decisions in light of budget woes, Shields asked Missourians to submit ideas through the state Senate’s website on how to rework government.

The effort so far has produced nearly $800 million in suggested cost savings that could be achieved internally or legislatively.

Senators earlier this month picked up where the last session left off, conducting workshops to discuss constituents’ suggestions. Mayer divided senators into seven panels: agriculture/Department of Natural Resources, courts/corrections/Department of Public Safety, education, general government/Office of Administration, retirement, social programs, tax structure and transportation.

With a $500 million budget shortfall projected in fiscal 2012, “everything is on the table. Every priority the state has is on the table as far as downsizing and restructuring state government,” Lembke said.

The senator spoke with the Call two days after Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon delivered his State of the State address and presented his $23.1 billion fiscal 2012 budget proposal. Lembke said Nixon’s address touched on some good, albeit familiar, points.

“I wasn’t surprised by his speech. It’s been similar the last couple of years. There is a lot of focus on creating jobs and that was probably the governor’s No. 1 theme, and it has been” since Nixon took office, Lembke said.

“I was pleased that the governor said we’re going to put forth a balanced budget, give the people a government they can afford without raising taxes. And I’m pleased that he is coming alongside the Legislature and our position on that.”

But even Nixon’s office may not be spared when the time comes to make cuts. Lembke — who also chairs the Senate’s new Governmental Accountability Committee and is a member of the Appropriations Committee — said legislators in particular are taking a hard look at the governor’s travel.

“There’s no line item for travel in his budget. We believe that each agency is being charged by the governor — or actually his office is using moneys that are appropriated to other departments for his state travel,” said Lembke, who stressed the scrutiny is bipartisan. “We’re not saying necessarily that he shouldn’t be doing it. We’re saying there’s no transparency in that, and we want to know what the governor is spending on travel.”

Trimming down the state’s work force also appears to be a priority. Nixon’s budget calls for the reduction of more than 860 employees. Lembke hopes the cuts are made through attrition and spare as many “front-line” state employees as possible because “I want to make sure my constituents can still access states services.”

But, noting the state already has decreased its payroll by thousands of employees, he added, “We’re getting to a point now where we’re really going to have to fire workers where there’s an actual person there instead of just retiring somebody and not replacing him.”

Nixon last year appointed 25 business, legislative and community leaders to a commission to study Missouri’s 61 tax-credit programs. Lawmakers may consider capping or placing a sunset date on some of them, Lembke said.

“I’ve been a proponent of reforming these tax credits because I don’t think the government should be in the position to pick winners and losers when it comes to businesses,” he said. “So I think what this is going to help us do is take a global look at our tax policy in the state of Missouri … What is going to make us competitive with neighboring states and grow our economy?”

Lembke said the state also could find efficiencies through consolidation of rural counties, school districts and prosecutor’s offices. Even the state House could be consolidated, said the senator, who has filed legislation to reduce the number of representatives from 163 to 103 after the 2020 census.

“If we’re going to be restructuring and downsizing state government, then a good place to start is in the General Assembly. The fact is we have the fourth largest state House in the country,” Lembke said, noting the reduction would save taxpayers an estimated $5 million annually.

Other recommendations studied by Lembke’s “reboot” committee: Move to a four-day work week for state employees, use teleconferencing to cut back on legislator travel reimbursements, restrict cell phone usage, monitor what agencies spend on advertising, continue to curb printing and postage, privatize the state lottery and require only one license plate on vehicles.

“The interesting thing about what my committee looked at was we’re responsible for revenue, office administration, elected officials and statewide leasing and facilities,” Lembke said. “Out of the $7 billion in general revenue that we appropriate and have control of, those areas represent roughly $400 million.

“My point with that is, with my committee going through and restructuring state government in those areas, we’re not going to make up our shortfall there. We’re going to have about a $500 million shortfall this year, and at best I would hope my committee could find 10-percent savings in those areas, which would be about $40 million in savings.”