Progress of GOP, Holden show shift of power

Sunday, March 30, 2003

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- At the symbolic midpoint of their first legislative session in control of the Missouri Legislature in a half-century, Republicans are touting the progress they've made on an agenda that was ignored under Democratic leadership.

Conversely, few of Democratic Gov. Bob Holden's priorities are making progress under the new regime.

The 2003 session marks the first since 1992 in which the party of the governor didn't control at least one legislative chamber.

Holden has had a particularly tough time wrangling over the budget with the newly minted Republican majority in the House. With the spending plan now heading to the more experienced Senate, where the GOP has been in charge for two years, the governor is more optimistic.

"This has been a particularly gloomy few months, but spring always renews our hope for the future," Holden said.

Lawmakers return from a 10-day spring recess on Monday for the final seven weeks of the session, which ends May 16.

House Majority Floor Leader Jason Crowell, R-Cape Girardeau, said there have been some growing pains in the lower chamber as the parties adjusted to new roles and 90 freshmen lawmakers learned the process. However, he said House members can be proud of their work.

"We have been able to do a remarkable amount of business in the Missouri House," Crowell said. "Major legislation has passed out of here before spring break."

Top initiatives include the main GOP issues that helped the party win the majority last fall, such as workers' compensation reform, restrictions on civil lawsuits and regulatory relief for businesses.

As is typical for the more deliberative Senate, where debate is unlimited and leaders hold less dominance over members, it hasn't been quite as active as the House, though it too has moved forward on a number of Republican priorities.

Senate President Pro Tem Peter Kinder, R-Cape Girardeau, gives the session to date a B-minus grade, in part because of the ultimately unsuccessful 30-hour filibuster by Democrats seeking to derail the chamber's lawsuit limitation bill.

The dominant issue of the session will continue to be the state budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1.

To address a $1 billion shortfall, Holden made $300 million in spending cuts from current levels and asked lawmakers to raise an additional $700 million through direct tax increases and proposed they close loopholes in the existing tax code.

Uncertain foundation

House Republicans are unwilling to raise taxes, in part because of fears that Missouri voters would be unwilling to give their required approval. A budget built on such an uncertain foundation, they say, could easily crumble making for an even more chaotic situation.

The House did endorse closing some tax loopholes, but the governor said it's not enough.

"They're still about $650 million short of where we need to be," Holden said.

The House passed an $18.5 billion spending plan -- $700 million less than Holden requested -- but didn't earmark the revenue for any specific spending programs. Instead lump sums were set aside for department heads to determine priorities.

While House Republicans say that gives the administration the flexibility to set priorities, state budget director Linda Luebbering said that because most of the state budget is driven by federal mandate and state constitutional requirements, there is in fact very little discretion on how the available money can be spent.

State Sen. John Russell, R-Lebanon, plans to craft a more traditional, detailed budget when the Senate Appropriations Committee, which he chairs, takes up the issue this week. Russell also indicated he may be amenable to some tax increases.

Kinder said he'll support his appropriations chairman as much as he can but couldn't predict the likelihood of a tax package or what the final budget will look like.

"How that ends up, I have no idea," Kinder said.

mpowers@semissourian.com

(573) 635-4608

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