President Reagan once quipped that comparing the spending habits of Congress to those of drunken sailors wasn’t fair to sailors because at least they were spending their own money.

The battle to keep government spending in check didn’t end with President Reagan. It must be fought in every generation. Left to themselves, government programs take on lives of their own and soon become entitlements – demanding ever-larger sums of money to support them.

Unfortunately, it is far easier for politicians to put off difficult decisions about cutting programs in order to spare themselves the inevitable backlash from those whose pet projects are affected. Congress continues to saddle our children and grandchildren with tremendous debt so they can placate today’s voters. Much of the latest rounds of deficit spending (i.e. the so-called stimulus packages) have been given to the states to fund a variety of projects. State leaders have enthusiastically taken this “free” money to fill gaping budget shortfalls so that they, too, do not have to get their own financial houses in order, but the day of reckoning cannot be put off forever.

July 1 marks the beginning of Missouri’s next fiscal year. Only a few short months ago, Missouri was looking at a more than $800 million surplus, but then estimates had to be revised due to the faltering economy to a $260 million shortfall. 

To get through the just-ending fiscal year 2009, the budget depended on $250 million in federal stimulus spending. For the fiscal year that starts on Wednesday, the General Assembly allocated almost $800 million in stimulus funds – and spent all but 25 percent of the rest on special projects. Using these temporary funds to try to prop up ongoing programs led me to vote “no” on many budget bills.

Lawmakers built the FY 2010 budget on projections of a 1 percent growth rate, but the economy would have to grow by 3 or 4 percent in fiscal year 2010 to stay even with those projections. Though cutting the budget may be difficult, it’s truly necessary. The new budget increases spending by 3 percent even as revenues decrease by 4 percent – possibly even more. By using the stimulus money to avoid putting our financial house in order, we have set ourselves up to make painful decisions down the road; some tough years could lie ahead.

Another issue that has resurfaced in recent weeks is a bond proposal to pay for capital building projects on public university campuses across the state – some of which may be vetoed to save money in the budget. Many lawmakers were reluctant to take on more debt in a recession, and a similar proposal didn’t pass in the legislature this year.

Now, the governor is working on a consensus with lawmakers to try to revive the bill, which could mean a special session to consider it. We are in the early stages of discussion, and a lot of questions still need to be answered before we proceed any further.