It's time to stop playing budget games

Wednesday, June 25, 2003

For most of us, the new year starts on a cold Jan. 1. But for Missouri government, the new year starts on a hot and steamy July 1 -- which is less than a week away.

The temperatures are even hotter in Jefferson City, where political posturing by legislators, meeting in special session, and Gov. Bob Holden has created more friction that just about anyone can remember.

The maneuvering isn't just about a state budget. The amount of spending sought by the governor and the amount approved by the legislature are so close that it's sometimes difficult to understand what the fuss is about (see state Sen. Peter Kinder's statistical analysis below).

It's more of a contest of ideology. More than that, it's an attempt to make Missourians who are likely to vote in next year's gubernatorial and legislative elections sit up and take notice.

As a result, we have a Republican-controlled legislature attempting to restrain state spending without any major tax increases. And we have a Democratic governor who wants to stake his political future on more funding for education.

The risk Holden is taking is that the legislature will cave in rather than have a new fiscal year start without passing the spending bills Holden wants to increase funding for elementary, secondary and higher education. That's never happened in Missouri's history. To accomplish that goal, the legislature would have to increase taxes or ask voters whether they want to pay more taxes.

Legislators have already shown the governor where they stand in the special session. They sent Holden new bills to replace the ones he had vetoed after the regular session. The governor accepted the new spending plans for health, mental health and social services. But he again vetoed the bills for education, even though those bills added more than $80 million.

Now the governor has changed the scope of the special session. No longer is he asking for bigger appropriations for education in the next fiscal year. Now he wants legislators to adopt temporary funding for education through September.

This doesn't fix the problem. Holden is calculating that the legislators will be ready to go along with his demands for more funding for education by the time schools across the state are back in session -- schools Holden hopes will be screaming bloody murder about their lack of funding and whipping the state's residents into a frenzy of support for higher taxes and more spending.

There are so many constitutional issues being raised by this ruckus that it's impossible to say what's doable and what isn't. But here's the big question: Will Missourians really care that much about all the wrangling in Jefferson City? After all, isn't that what politicians do? And aren't voters always saying how tired they are of the squabbling and name-calling? And isn't all of this at the heart of why voters have become so apathetic and rarely bother to go to the polls anymore, even when the issue is something really important?

The issue at this critical point is the same as it was when Holden made his budget requests in January. He wants to raise taxes to spend more. Republican legislators (and a good many Democrats as well) want to spend less and hold the lines on taxes. Missourians aren't likely to give Holden's position the support he needs to prevail.

It's time to sign off on the budget, Gov. Holden. It's too late for more political games.

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