GOP touts work as session concludes

Saturday, May 17, 2003

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- The first legislative session since 1948 with Republican majorities in both chambers of the Missouri Legislature ended rather anticlimactically Friday without the usual scramble to complete major bills.

"We're under new management," quipped Senate President Pro Tem Peter Kinder, R-Cape Girardeau.

Though lawmakers put the finishing touches on various measures on their final day of work, the pace was much less frenetic than in past years as they neared the 6 p.m. constitutional deadline for adjournment.

Republicans heralded the session as a success with the passage of key initiatives on tort reform, economic stimulus, concealed weapons, abortion and the completion of a near-balanced $19 billion state budget without a major tax increase.

"When the gavel fell today, it fell after the passage of massive pieces of legislation that will help create jobs in this state," said House Speaker Catherine Hanaway, R-Warson Woods.

In all, 254 bills were sent to Gov. Bob Holden for his signature, up slightly from the 214 measures approved last year when Democrats held the House with Republicans running the Senate.

Though Holden, a Democrat, had some gripes about the session, he too tried to put a positive spin on events.

"I think we all must acknowledge that this has been a challenging and, at times, chaotic legislative session," Holden said. "Yet in spite of that, it is important to acknowledge what has been accomplished."

Holden praised lawmakers for bipartisan success in passing nursing home reform, fixing a problem with the state's prescription drug benefit for senior citizens and legislation intended to encourage economic revitalization in downtown areas.

Vows to veto

However, the governor vowed to veto three of the main items on the GOP agenda: Limits on civil lawsuits, allowing residents to obtain concealed weapon permits and a 24-hour waiting period for abortions.

Lawmakers could attempt to override the governor during September's annual veto session.

Holden was less forthcoming on what action he would take on the budget, which he considers woefully underfunded at the expense of education, health care and social services -- areas that suffered deep cuts although overall state spending remained flat.

Though earlier in the year he had threatened to veto the budget if a major tax increase wasn't placed on the statewide ballot for voter consideration this summer, Holden now said he is reviewing the Republican plan and weighing his options.

A budget veto would force lawmakers to return for a special session to redo the job before the July 1 start of the next fiscal year.

"I will only call a special session if I feel it is necessary and in the best interests of people in Missouri," Holden said.

No to special plans

Republicans, who hold a 90-73 House majority and 20-14 Senate advantage, said an extra session and the expense it would entail would serve no purpose as they would likely pass the exact same budget.

However, the House budget chairman, state Rep. Carl Bearden, R-St. Charles, conceded lawmakers fell $6 million to $10 million short of closing the $200 million budget deficit they had at the start of the week.

Kinder blamed the gap on Democratic opposition in the Senate to a bill that sought to reduce certain Medicaid costs -- something Holden had proposed in January.

"I find that more than a little bit ironic and sad," Kinder said.

Holden, however, said the final version of the failed bill was nothing like his proposal.

Senate Minority Floor Leader Ken Jacob, D-Columbia, urged Holden to veto the budget.

"I'm sorry to say that at the end of the session we still have a budget crisis," Jacob said. "The work on the budget is not done."

Tightening the definition of workplace injury to reduce workers' compensation costs for businesses and changing how proceeds from casino gambling are distributed to local school districts were two major Republican priorities that failed.

Both passed the House only to die in the Senate.

Tort reform, one of the bills Holden promised to veto, was the most high-profile measure lawmakers completed on the last day. While the Senate had passed the bill in March, it hit the House floor on Friday afternoon for the first time. The lower chamber, however, had previously debated and passed a more restrictive proposal that languished in the Senate.

Without any debate, House Majority Floor Leader Jason Crowell, R-Cape Girardeau, forced a vote on the Senate version, incensing Democrats, including Minority Floor Leader Mark Abel, D-Festus.

"Not one person was allowed to speak," Abel said. "It was an insult."

mpowers@semissourian.com

(573) 635-4608

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