JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — If you’re planning on getting some state funds in the next few years, it might be a good idea to get to know Rep. Scott Fitzpatrick, R-Shell Knob.
Fitzpatrick, a sophomore representative, is now Vice Chair of the enormously powerful House Budget Committee. As the second-highest ranking member of a committee dolling out billions in funds for state operations, the 27-year-old Fitzpatrick is effectively one of the most influential state lawmakers under 30 in Missouri.
“The title is nice to have, I don’t know that it makes me better or worse than any other member, but there’s certainly a higher level of expectations for me,” Fitzpatrick said. “I’ve tried to establish myself as someone who is honest and a team player, and that’s what I have to continue to do.”
Budget committees, while not immune to partisan bickering — particularly as Missouri lawmakers continue to spar over Medicaid expansion — are traditionally a less political organization that many other House or Senate committees. In recent years, disputes about revenue shortfalls and growth estimates have led Gov. Jay Nixon to withhold funds from various programs, raising the ire of both Democrats and Republicans working intimately on the budget.
“Priorities for spending can be contentious, there’s no doubt,” Fitzpatrick said. “But the Chairman sets the tone for how the committee will be run and [Chairman Rep. Tom Flanigan] will do his best to work with the ranking minority members. There can be a certain level of camaraderie with people on both sides of the spectrum when it comes to the budget.”
Fitzpatrick’s rise in the budget began early in his legislative career. On his freshmen tour prior to his swearing in, Fitzpatrick found himself most fascinated by the budget process, and was soon grilling House Appropriations staffers on the specifics of the budget process. Fitzpatrick said the “talent and knowledge” of House appropriations staff was “unbelievable.”
Flanigan served previously as Vice Chair of the budget committee. The committee’s second-in-command is typically groomed by a senior lawmaker for the top slot and provided that the next Missouri House Speaker has a good working relationship with him, Fitzpatrick’s eventual ascension to Chairman for a rare two-term stretch would be a rarity in state politics in the world of term limits.
Fitzpatrick says there are a number of areas that need to be addressed in the budget, from finding common-sense reforms to social service programs like Medicaid, to rethinking the creation of “formulas” to dictate funding for various entities and departments.
“We put into statute formulas for funding various things,” Fitzpatrick said. “If you tried to fully fund everything that has a formula, it would literally be impossible. We don’t have the money. What we need to do outside of budget is look at how we hash out formulas. People look at those are promises that can’t be met and feel betrayed.”
Fitzpatrick joins his fellow Republicans in the position that Missourians won’t be increasing taxes of any kind — sales, tobacco or otherwise — for a while. So long as any future tax cuts are modeled as small and based on state growth like last year’s SB 509, Fitzpatrick doesn’t see a drastic increase or decrease in state general revenue funds on the horizon.
Something that may be on the horizon? A new debate about funding for transportation needs in Missouri. Fitzpatrick said that MoDOT’s funding mechanism, the Missouri Highway Fund, is the only state funding mechanism that does not need legislative appropriations to disburse its cash. The dedicated but dwindling source of money for the Highway Fund — which is largely derived from motor vehicle sales taxes, gas taxes and other user fees — has MODOT slashing their budget on an annual basis. And with Missourians easily voting down a measure just months ago to increase sales taxes for new road projects and improvements, Fitzpatrick says one potential option may be appropriating at least some general revenue funds specifically for road and bridge improvements and maintenance.
Budget committee hearings are expected to being next week, and Fitzpatrick said he expected an extremely fast past, likening the first few weeks to being “shot from a cannon.” This year’s budget process may prove less rocky than in years past. Nixon and lawmakers in the capitol have agreed on consensus revenue estimates — the estimated amount of revenue growth Missouri will see in the coming fiscal year — which is already an improvement over last year’s negotiations, which broke down when lawmakers and Nixon couldn’t reconcile a full 1 percent difference in their estimations.
“If we had gone with [Nixon’s] estimates last year, we’d be in much worse shape,” Fitzpatrick said.
As long as revenue estimates aren’t drastically greater than what the state ultimately collects in revenue, the CRE agreement may prevent Nixon from withholding certain funds for fear of over-appropriation or stagnant growth, and potentially stop the third consecutive fight over withholds before it begins.
Learning to treat funds not collected by the state as “real dollars” is another challenge Fitzpatrick hopes to impart on his fellow members.
“A lot of people pay attention to general revenue expenses,” Fitzpatrick said. “As they should. But we tend to treat federal dollars and other funds like it’s not real money. The common misconception is that federal money and other funds are a sideshow that doesn’t really matter.
Ultimately, the budget process is about openness, wanting to learn more, and lots of patience. Funds come from many sources, and an appropriate understanding of the state’s balance sheet is critical to the process, Fitzpatrick said.
“If you don’t know how much money you have in your bank account today, even if you know what you make, it’s hard to begin to budget for yourself,” Fitzpatrick said.
Collin Reischman was the Managing Editor for The Missouri Times, and a graduate of Webster University with a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism.