This week's veto road show staged by Gov. Bob Holden pretends to be about the Missouri budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1. In a series of whistle stops around the state, Holden has announced plans to veto spending bills covering nearly two-thirds of the state budget approved in the legislative session that ended last week.
By parceling out his veto announcements, Holden has been guaranteed front-page coverage in virtually every daily newspaper in the state all week, as well as on every TV and radio station's news broadcasts. His message would have taxpayers believe that his foremost concern is the welfare of Missourians who, he insists, would be adversely affected by a budget that reflects the reality of limited state revenue and avoids wholesale tax increases.
But don't be fooled. Holden's real concern has a name: Claire McCaskill. Or Matt Blunt. Both the Democratic state auditor and the Republican secretary of state promise to unhitch Holden's campaign bandwagon.
It's all about getting re-elected
McCaskill has made no secret of the fact that she is thinking about challenging Holden in next year's primary. McCaskill has maintained a high profile as state auditor -- something few of her predecessors who also had political ambitions were able to do.
She has endeared herself to much of the state's news media by testing compliance with the state's open meetings-open records law, popularly known as the Sunshine Law. The Missouri Press Association gave her a special award a couple of years ago. She also has exposed and publicized several state agencies' questionable financial practices that taxpayers find especially galling.
It is obvious that Holden's flurry of veto announcements this week are part of a carefully orchestrated campaign initiative designed to build his reputation as a hard-fisted state executive who won't be pushed around by the Republican majority in the legislature, an ambitious state auditor or an electable secretary of state.
But there's a flaw in the strategy cooked up by Holden's campaign handlers. How voters perceive a candidate, particularly one who has held office for more than two years and has been expected to show his leadership abilities through some tough financial times, is based more on sustained efforts and -- more importantly -- significant results.
Unfortunately, Holden is generally perceived as a weak leader -- not just by Republicans who would be expected to find fault with his lackluster performance, but by embarrassed Democrats, including some in the legislature who found it easier to work with the level-headed GOP leadership than with a governor who asked for the impossible and did little to bridge divides that might have accomplished some of his goals.
Because Holden is vetoing parts of the budget, he must call -- probably today -- a special legislative session in which the Republican majority in both the House and Senate will be asked to set aside their principles and go along with a governor who favors a tax increase to pay for state spending the legislature has already said Missouri can't afford.
Holden is expected to call the legislators back to Jefferson City in early June -- less than a month before the new budget year starts. The governor says he doesn't think his tactics will result in shutting down state government -- something he would, of course, blame on GOP legislators -- but his disclaimers are far from reassuring.
There are three things that should be happening right now, and it falls to the Republican leadership in Jefferson City to see that they do.
First, legislators should be meeting right now. They should be talking about options. They should be calculating what will happen if the governor decides to ignore the will of the legislature and leaves Missouri without a budget come July 1. And they should be conveying all of this to Missourians with daily press briefings.
Second, they should offer the governor a deal that takes the budget out of jeopardy. In return for Holden's signing the budget as approved in the regular legislative session and, as expected, in the special session, the legislators should authorize a special election in November that would give Missourians an opportunity to vote on the tax increase Holden favors on tobacco products.
Third, the governor and legislators should start meeting as soon as possible on the state budget for the following fiscal year, which will probably be even tougher to balance and which will be hammered out during a hard-fought election year.
Time for a reasonable compromise
This plan of action would mean at least another year of tight state spending that depends on current sources of revenue. But it would give voters -- not legislators -- the option of deciding whether or not they favor more taxes for additional revenue in the budget year to follow. And if voters approve those tax increases, there might also be enough new income to protect that part of the budget -- the one that takes effect July 1 -- that is ordinarily withheld each year as a hedge against lower-than-expected state revenue.
Holden has an opportunity to demonstrate his leadership abilities by working with the legislature on practical budgets for the next two fiscal years. Otherwise, his antics will be seen by many voters as another desperate candidate attempting to salvage his re-election.