JEFFERSON CITY • Missouri's lame-duck Republican leaders pledged Wednesday to use their final legislative session to find enough savings to balance the state budget while providing quality alternatives for schoolchildren in failing districts.
But their speeches, which opened the 4½-month session, provided no roadmap of how they'll avoid the potholes and detours that have plagued those issues in the past. Instead, they promised a cooperative spirit.
"You know, this building wears us down," House Speaker Steve Tilley, R-Perryville, told colleagues. "We have a tendency to get caught up in the fights."
Tilley, who cited his divorce when he recently dropped his bid for higher office, urged legislators to focus on "people who truly care about you" and "leave this building better than you found it."
Both Tilley and Senate President Pro Tem Rob Mayer, R-Dexter, pledged to balance the budget without raising taxes. While the state has the lowest cigarette tax in the nation, that's not on the table, Mayer told reporters.
"Now's not the time to be talking about increasing the tax burden on any segment of our society," he said.
The Senate's Democratic leader agreed. Sen. Victor Callahan, D-Independence, said legislators must rein in state tax credits that go to developers before even considering any tax increases.
But House and Senate Republicans deadlocked on a tax credit overhaul last fall and no consensus has yet emerged. So that issue won't command attention this year, the GOP leaders said.
The biggest issue is money.
The state faces a budget shortfall of $425 million to $500 million, mainly because Missouri used federal stimulus money to balance the $7.3 billion general revenue budget and that source of revenue is ending.
Even if the state meets its projections for a 3.9 percent growth in revenue during the budget year that begins July 1, legislators still must make deep cuts to stay out of the red.
"I just think it's cut, cut, cut," said veteran lobbyist Samuel Lee, who hopes to protect $1.5 million that goes toward alternatives for abortion.
Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, will lay out his budget plan in his "State of the State" speech on Jan. 17.
While the talk Wednesday focused on working together, that could be difficult because of election-year politics, especially since redistricting maps threw more than 50 legislators into districts with fellow incumbents.
All 163 House members and half the Senate seats are up for election in November. So are the governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state, treasurer and attorney general.
Because of term limits, nine senators won't be back, Mayer noted. That makes it tough to form coalitions, he said, because their focus is on what they'll be doing next.
Business is pushing several bills to revamp the state's workers compensation system and reduce civil lawsuit costs for employers.
Of that effort, House Minority Leader Mike Talboy, D-Kansas City, said:
"We need to make sure we don't become anti worker, which means you have less money to buy goods which then doesn't create as many jobs."
While Republicans have huge majorities in the Legislature, the party is split over many issues.
Education policy is one example. All agree they need to fix the state's school aid formula, which distributes money to public schools. But Tilley said the House will demand other changes as well, such as tuition tax credits and expansion of charter schools.
Currently, Republicans outnumber Democrats 26-8 in the state Senate. In the House, Republicans will hold a 106-56-1 majority after four new members are sworn in on Jan. 10.
The newcomers include the lone independent, Rep-elect Tracy McCreery of Olivette, who broke from the Democratic Party to seek the seat when she wasn't picked as the special election nominee by the district's party committee. She said Wednesday that while she plans to keep her independent status, she will caucus with the Democrats.
Her dispute with the party "was more of a political rules kind of thing rather than issues," said McCreery, who noted that she has worked for several prominent Democrats.
The four new House members - who include Republican Chrissy Sommer of St. Charles -- decided to wait until Jan. 10 to be sworn in. Sitting out a week allows them to serve less than a year of the unexpired terms they are filling. That way, this year won't count toward the four-term limit.
Before the session began, Tea Party supporters made a pitch for limited government with a rally in the Rotunda. They gave legislators framed copes of sections of the Missouri Constitution.