"Missouri's race to the bottom ends today."
If we were writing the state of the state speech that Gov. Jay Nixon will deliver tonight, that would be the first line. But we aren't. And it won't be.
Instead, we suspect, Missourians — those few who will break away from "Glee" at 7 p.m. — will hear a new version of the same speech Mr. Nixon, nominally a Democrat, has given for three years.
He'll balance the budget without a tax increase, he'll say. He wakes up thinking about jobs, we predict. Of course, he's eliminated waste, and naturally, Missouri is on the right track.
Our recommendation: Stay with "Glee."
To some degree, we empathize with Mr. Nixon's plight. He faces an overwhelmingly Republican-controlled Legislature that refuses to budge on taxes even though Missouri has the 47th-lowest tax burden in the nation.
As a result, the state isn't funding higher education (42nd lowest), K-12 schools (37th lowest), or paying decent wages (teachers' pay is 46th worst in nation; state employees' pay is the lowest). Between 1998 and 2008, median household income in Missouri dropped faster than in any other state.
Digging out of this hole is Missouri's true challenge. But neither our Legislature nor our governor can get over their "no new taxes" pledges to do anything meaningful about it.
Still, even if Mr. Nixon wants to play by the Legislature's rules, there is a way for him to put meaning behind his oft-repeated phrase that "budgets are about priorities."
He can fully fund schools without resorting to budget tricks. He can challenge Republicans who say they are about fiscal responsibility to declare their true loyalties: to taxpayers or to wealthy campaign donors.
All he has to say tonight is this: "In fiscal year 2013, by executive order, the state of Missouri will not redeem a single tax credit that is presented in lieu of payment for taxes owed the state treasury."
Mr. Nixon should declare a holiday. A tax credit holiday.
This single action would more than fill the budget hole estimated by legislative leaders to be in the range of $500 million.
Everybody in the Capitol knows that Missouri's biggest ongoing budget problem, outside of the Great Recession, is the state's propensity to hand out tax credits like legislative candy along a parade route. Some credits go to good causes, like senior citizens on a fixed income. Most go to developers or corporations as incentives, theoretically, to create jobs.
Those tax credits — in effect, coupons than can be cashed in to pay state income taxes — are sold on an insiders-only market, usually at a discount. The budget impact is felt by the state when the tax credits are redeemed, sometimes as much as 10 years after their issued.
As long ago as 2003, we lamented the $220 million worth of tax credits that were dragging down the state budget. Now the number is three times that much, and it's still growing.
Tax credits come first at budget time, even in lean times. The governor and the Legislature regularly reduce budgets for schools, or poor people, or health care, or senior citizens. Tax credits never get touched. Conservative Republican Sen. Jason Crowell of Cape Girardeau has been criticizing that exclusion, to no avail, for several years.
Corporations win. People lose. Every year.
In the budget for fiscal year 2013 that begins July 1, the state estimates it will redeem about $685 million in tax credits. That's $685 million — much of it owed by big corporations or wealthy individuals — that won't be available for your local schools, for prisons, for law enforcement, for roads.
There is a huge, largely unseen industry that has woven itself into our political system, through campaign donations, consultants, lobbyists and gifts to lawmakers. That industry keeps the river of tax credits flowing.
To his credit, Mr. Nixon has worked, though unsuccessfully, to dam this raging wall of government handouts. But the very Legislature that says it is committed to fiscal righteousness stymied him. Some of the same lawmakers who say they support the pie-in-the-sky plans of St. Louis millionaire investor Rex Sinquefield to get rid of the state's income tax and replace it with a much higher sales tax protect the tax credits that are the most significant evil in the existing income tax system.
Attempts to reasonably restrain tax credit growth have failed, so it's time for drastic action.
Suspending the redemption of tax credits for one year would be an act of fiscal sanity that, for the first time in recent memory, would signal that the state of Missouri has its budget priorities in order.
Refusing to pay for a year — but still promising to pay the full credit when the economy recovers — would no doubt have a negative effect on the tax credit market. Investors would be in a tizzy.
Could it be any more devastating than losing more teachers, cops and firefighters, than cutting mental health and children's services budgets, than (ahem) cutting back on snow removal?
It makes no sense for the state to continue to welsh on its commitment to kids so that a few very wealthy individuals and corporations can continue to trade Missouri tax dollars like commodities. There is no economic development more important than an educated workforce, and yet Missouri stiffs its students every year.
The annual budget debate simply is about who gets stiffed and by how much. Two summers ago, Missouri told taxpayers expecting refunds that they'd have to wait a few months, because cash flow was tight. Right now, the state is stiffing 170 disabled workers who are owed $13.5 million in court judgments.
The state can do this. It can fully fund its schools without a tax increase while at the same time painting the clearest picture possible about the hypocrisy of a budget process that makes the poor, the sick and the young stand in line for scraps behind wealthy corporate campaign donors who take their money right off the top.
Missouri's race to the bottom can end.
All it takes is one act of courage.