Special session carries political gambles

Tuesday, May 27, 2003

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Starting this week, Missourians are likely to be seeing campaign-style television commercials about the state budget.

The commercials, by the Democratic Party, will be touting Gov. Bob Holden's view of the doom and gloom that could befall basic services because of budget cuts passed by the Republican-controlled legislature.

The intent is to put public pressure on lawmakers before a June 2 special session. Holden wants them to reverse the budget cuts and ask voters to raise taxes instead.

Perhaps, like an emergency broadcast message that appears on the bottom of a TV screen, the commercials need a disclaimer: "This is a test of the 2004 election campaign. It is only a test."

While the upcoming special session carries real consequences for taxpayers, schools and the recipients of state services, it also is a preview of the political positions that voters are likely to see in next year's campaigns.

In their starkest terms, those positions come down to tax increases vs. cuts in state services.

'It's all politics'

Ideally, a politician would like to avoid cutting popular programs while also avoiding taxes increases. But with Missouri about to enter a fourth year of budget woes, that doesn't seem possible. So politicians must choose sides.

That makes Holden's special session a high-stakes political gamble. Will voters see a governor wanting to raise taxes? Or will they see a legislature wanting to cut programs for children, the mentally ill and the poor?

"It's all politics. It's all about strategy for winning the next gubernatorial election, strategy for maintaining dominance in the legislature," said George Connor, who teaches political science at Southwest Missouri State University.

Who wins and who loses depends partly on how well each side is able to instill its viewpoint in voters.

On one hand, Holden has a natural advantage as governor. When chief executives hold news conferences -- as Holden did every day last week while announcing vetoes of budget bills -- they almost always get attention, notes David Webber, a political scientist at the University of Missouri-Columbia.

On the other hand, Missourians have dislike tax increases, giving Republicans a built-in edge, said Candy Young, a political science professor at Truman State University.

"People seem to be most upset about cuts to K-12, but I don't here them clamoring for a tax increase," Young said.

'It could help'

Calling a special session "certainly will bring attention and, in that sense, it could help" Holden, she said. "But you have a bunch of people in the state of Missouri saying, 'See there, the Democrat wants to raise taxes.' And that won't help him."

The results of the special session are likely to have the biggest impact on who wins and loses politically.

If Republican lawmakers -- as they have indicated they will -- send Holden substantially the same budget as he vetoed, then the special session could appear as a waste of $98,000 a week.

In that case, the only benefit to Holden would be a heightened public impression that the responsibility for the cuts to schools and vital services lies with the Republican legislature, not with him.

"You could argue that getting two or three weeks more coverage of the distinction between where the governor is and the Legislature is would be a win for the governor," said Terry Jones, a political scientist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. "But I don't think so, because there would no shift politically and he would be subject to the charge of wasting the state's money for a special session."

The reason the special session is only a test of next year's political campaigns is that the November 2004 elections are a long way off.

By then, voters will have had time to see if the budget cuts turn out to be as painful and drastic as Holden claims.

Webber thinks Holden might have been better off politically had he waited to call a special session.

"His advantage is if there is a perceived crisis," Webber said. Right now, "the crisis is still abstract. It's possible, conceivable, it's even likely. But it still hasn't happened.

"Another round of budget cuts to elementary and higher education would get people's attention, and a call for increased revenues at that time would have a lot more clout," Webber said.

Indeed, Holden did announce another round of education cuts Friday because of weak state revenues. But Webber's point is that it takes a while for spending cuts to result in consequences that get noticed by the public.

With well more than a year until the election, there is plenty of time for the cuts to sink in, or for circumstances to change.

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