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Opinion: Why fiscal notes matter in Jefferson City

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A legislative process designed to impose fiscal discipline on Missouri's legislature has become a major issue this year.

The process involves "fiscal notes." They are estimates by the independent Legislative Oversight staff on the impact of bills on government finances.

But this fall, the state auditor questioned the accuracy of fiscal notes. Then the governor's massive tax plan was presented in a manner that avoided the Legislative Oversight's estimate of the costs prior to a committee hearing on the bill.

Over the years, fiscal notes have had a significant impact on the legislative process, sidelining bills or forcing sponsors to scale back the costs. But the process has not always been perfect.

Sometimes, political pressures to pass a bill overcame budget warnings.

That happened just a few years ago when lawmakers voted to phase out the corporate franchise tax despite staff estimates of an eventual $80 million annual tax loss. Those estimates turned out to be accurate.

However, Legislative Oversight sometimes gets it wrong, as the state auditor pointed out in an October report of the fiscal-note process.

Nicole Galloway's report found the fiscal note for a business tax cut passed in 2015 was far off. Although the Legislative Oversight fiscal note estimated a $30 million cost for the first two years, the auditor reported the actual cost exceeded $170 million. That lost revenue has contributed to the budget crisis the state now faces in funding education.

The most recent problem with the fiscal note process arose when Gov. Eric Greitens' large tax-cut plan was presented to the Senate Ways and Means Committee.

Substitutes presented to a committee are not subject to Legislative Oversight cost estimates until after adoption by the committee. So the committee did not have an independent evaluation from its own staff about the financial impact of the governor's proposed tax cuts. Instead, there were various news accounts of conflicting claims from the Greitens administration about the cost.

As I write this column, there still is no independent evaluation as to how much the governor's tax-cut bill would cut from the state budget. This financial-estimate chaos has led me to think of ways this process of fiscal discipline could be improved for your elected legislators.

Legislative Oversight issues fiscal notes soon after the legislation is introduced. But with hundreds of bills filed in the opening weeks of a legislative session, it's an overwhelming task.

One month into this year's legislative session, hundreds of bills still lack fiscal notes. Maybe the legislature should return to the prior practice of limiting legislative staff fiscal note efforts to bills with a significant financial impact.

The effort to fast-track the governor's tax cut package has made me wonder if legislative rules should prohibit a committee from even considering a substitute bill until legislative staff have prepared a fiscal note on the cost.

Maybe Legislative Oversight estimates should be given more prominence. There have been times the tax-loss estimates have been higher than supporters claimed.

But I sense some legislators do not always heed the figures.

I wonder whether the fiscal note ought to be included on the very front page of the actual bill. After all, similar cost estimates are put at the top of statewide ballot issues and initiative petitions.

Why should legislators be denied the same front-page cost warnings given to Missouri voters?

Phill Brooks is director of the Missouri School of Journalism’s State Government Reporting Program. He has been a statehouse reporter since 1970, making him the dean of the Missouri statehouse press corps, and he manages the multimedia website on state government news, MDN.org. Brooks can be reached at column@mdn.org.

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