Republicans urge governor to accept state budget plan

Sunday, May 11, 2003

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- With the state budget sent to Gov. Bob Holden, Republican legislative leaders are traveling the state in an effort to build public support for the plan and put pressure on the Democratic chief executive to sign it into law.

The Missouri Legislature passed a nearly $19 billion spending plan for the upcoming fiscal year on Friday, hours ahead of the constitutional deadline for doing so.

The GOP majorities in both legislative chambers largely ignored Holden's call for new taxes, which he said are needed to preserve vital programs, prompting him on several occasions to threaten to veto at least some of the various appropriations bills. Holden somewhat softened his stance in recent days but hasn't said whether he would sign the budget measures.

Senate President Pro Tem Peter Kinder of Cape Girardeau and House Speaker Catherine Hanaway of Warson Woods will visit St. Louis, Joplin and Springfield today and Monday to tout the first budget under a GOP-dominated legislature in more than 50 years.

During a Friday news conference in the Capitol, Republicans said their proposal is fiscally responsible and the best they could do with limited resources.

"The budget plan is a compromise and one we believe can be sold to the governor," Kinder said.

In terms of total dollars, the new budget calls for roughly the same amount of spending as appropriated for the current year and just 1.7 percent, or $329.7 million, less than Holden had requested.

However, because of rising costs of mandatory spending programs and a continuing shift from reliance on general revenue, which can be spent as lawmakers see fit, to federal funds, which can be used only for certain purposes, the Republican plan still results in deep cuts to education and social services.

Sen. Wayne Goode, D-Normandy, said nothing would be gained by vetoing the budget but lamented the fact that legislative support for new taxes was lacking.

"That is probably going to continue to hamper us in putting budgets together to serve the needs of this state," said Goode, a former longtime budget chairman in both legislative chambers.

Other Democrats urged Holden to exercise his veto power. Minority House members were particularly testy, claiming they were shut out of the process.

Because the House originally passed a lump-sum budget before the Senate replaced it with a traditional line-item approach, the specifics of the plan got little review in the lower chamber.

And while in the past final budget passage took the better part of a week, the House approved the major components of the plan in about 12 hours -- seven of which was dedicated to two education bills. House Majority Floor Leader Jason Crowell, R-Cape Girardeau, invoked his power to squelch debate on most of the remaining appropriations measures.

"We never had the chance to talk about our priorities," said House Minority Floor Leader Mark Abel, D-Festus.

For example, the House spent only about 30 minutes on the $5.5 billion spending bill for the Department of Social Services, which accounts for 29 percent of the budget.

If Holden vetoes some or all of the budget, he would call a special session for lawmakers to do the job again before the July 1 start of the fiscal year.

MoDOT accountability

The Senate unanimously endorsed a significantly scaled-back version of a House bill intended to improve oversight of the Missouri Department of Transportation.

Following voters' overwhelming rejection of a proposed transportation tax package last summer, many lawmakers vowed to push for changes that would rebuild public trust in the much-maligned department.

The original House bill called for a greater degree of legislative influence at MoDOT, which under the state constitution is largely insulated from meddling by lawmakers and the governor.

Under the House version, the governor would be forced to pick members of MoDOT's governing commission from candidates vetted by legislative leaders. The department's inspector general, who investigates instances of waste, fraud and abuse, would become an employee of the legislature.

The Senate, however, is cool to such ideas. The primary component of its version calls for hiring a full-time director for the Joint Committee on Transportation Oversight, a legislative panel that currently meets once a year but which would hold five annual meeting under the bill. The director would have investigative powers similar to MoDOT's inspector general but not replace that position.

The Senate bill would also give the governor the authority to remove any commissioner for "inefficiency, neglect of duty or misconduct." At present, a commissioner can't be removed until his six-year term has expired.

House and Senate negotiators are working on a compromise proposal.

Labor agreements

State and local governments would be prohibited from signing construction contracts that require the contractor to use union labor under a bill the House returned to the Senate.

Rep. Rob Mayer, R-Dexter, handled the bill in the lower chamber, which passed it 84-67 after Crowell moved to cut off debate. Additional action by the Senate is required to send the bill to Holden, a union supporter.

Pro-business groups say the measure would spur competition. Labor groups say the bill could be illegal under the National Labor Relations Act.

Rep. Rick Johnson, D-High Ridge, said the legislature's Republican majority attempting to dictate policy to local governments.

"This is a slap in the face to local control," Johnson said.

Holden signs electric bill

The governor signed into law Thursday a bill that frees a Southeast Missouri electric cooperative from state rate regulation.

The action fixes a legal anomaly that made Ste. Genevieve-based Citizens Electric Corp. the only not-for-profit utility in the state subject to oversight by the Missouri Public Service Commission. Other cooperatives and municipal utilities have always been exempt from full PSC regulation, which usually applies only to private, for-profit companies.

Citizens Electric officials estimate the law will save it $90,000 annually from reduced regulatory costs. The savings will be passed on to its 26,000 customer-owners in Cape Girardeau, Perry and Ste. Genevieve counties.

mpowers@semissourian.com

(573) 635-4608

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