Bi-Partisan Panel of KC Area Lawmakers from Missouri Address Social Service Agencies

Brenda Sharpe opened a legislative forum in Kansas City, Mo., on Tuesday afternoon by preaching to the choir, telling her social service colleagues in the audience that private philanthropy is not enough for them to fully carry out their missions.

“We have to have our government present and willing to participate in this equation,” said Sharpe, chief executive of the Overland Park-based REACH Healthcare Foundation and a trustee with the United Way of Greater Kansas City.

But the bipartisan panel of Kansas City-area lawmakers gathered for the event was singing from a different hymn book.

“I’m not making commitments on funding anything at this point,” Missouri State Rep. Ryan Silvey, chairman of the House Budget Committee, told the audience gathered at the Southeast Community Center.

Silvey is Republican.

When the General Assembly convenes in January, he said, it could face a budget deficit of as much as $700 million – on a general revenue budget of about $7 billion.

The revenue picture is bleak because persistent joblessness is a drag on badly needed sales and income taxes, he said, and federal stimulus dollars are running out.

So no matter how bad social service providers think the funding situation has been recently, he said, the situation is even worse now.

“This is the cliff,” he said.

Responding later to a question submitted from the audience, Silvey initially said he had no advice on how providers should approach legislators for funding in an environment like this. But then, he reconsidered.

Anytime you can show that a program has an economic benefit, he said, “that seems to resonate.”

A good example, he said, was the childcare subsidy available to working families.

“We’ve been putting money into that,” Silvey said, “and I think that’s because it comes not only with the message of, ‘This is good for them. It helps,’ because that is everybody’s message. But that this is a good program that helps someone become more self sufficient, and it helps them produce and put back into the economy.”

Silvey also said there could be an appetite among a majority of lawmakers to close tax loopholes as a way of raising revenue, though there still are some members who would consider that a breach of their pledge to not raise taxes.

One loophole that Silvey has tried unsuccessfully to close in the past is one that gives boat purchasers a break on sales tax if they buy a boat of a certain length. The rationale for the tax break is that the boats could be commandeered by first-responders in times of emergency.

House Minority Leader Mike Talboy, a Democrat, agreed with Silvey’s observations and added some of his own.

Social service providers should come with plans that show what they can still do with decreased budgets, because if agencies come in with an all-or-nothing attitude, Talboy said, “You may not get any of it.”

Democratic State Sen. Jolie Justus concurred with her colleagues – saying that the Kansas City delegation is a remarkably unified group on a number of issues despite the prevailing gridlock in Jefferson City. But, she said, some good could come from the bleak situation.

With everyone facing the same economic realities, she said, it might spur cooperation among groups that traditionally do not get along.

“When you are falling off the cliff and you hit rock bottom, you start to get allies that you never thought you had,” she said.

For example, the mayors of St. Louis and Kansas City are discussing ideas in which the two competing cities could join forces in Jefferson City on issues of mutual concern.

She said she would learn more about the specifics of the potential collaboration at an upcoming meeting between the Kansas City General Assembly delegation and elected leaders in the city.

She also pointed to the 13-member Missouri Working Group on Sentencing and Corrections, which was established in August by Gov. Jay Nixon, Missouri Supreme Court Judge William Ray Price Jr., and other executive branch representatives.

Justus is a member of the working group, and she said it has bridged not only partisan divides, but also regional differences and rural-urban splits.

Aided by a grant from the Pew Center on the States, the working group is developing recommendations designed to save money on corrections by ensuring that only the most hardened criminals remain incarcerated. The savings would then be redirected to community-based programs that help less violent offenders become productive members of society.

Robin Winner was one attendee at the forum who knows about the difficulties of dealing with a state that is short on funds.

She is executive director of Synergy Services, a violence-prevention organization based in Parkville.

One of Synergy’s services is contracting with the state to serve children that have been removed from their homes because of abuse or neglect. But, Winner said in an interview, the state picks up only about 40 percent of Synergy’s costs for that service.

That’s not an ideal situation, she said, but she’s not pointing the finger at the Kansas City area lawmakers.

“I’m not blaming them,” Winner said, “because the money is just not there.”

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