State education budget battle ends

Saturday, June 28, 2003

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- The six-month battle over the state budget finally ended Friday when Gov. Bob Holden agreed to sign education spending bills he had twice vetoed.

The governor made the surprise announcement in a speech before Missouri school officials at the Lake of the Ozarks at the same time the Senate was taking action to send the two spending bills to him for the third time.

Later in his Capitol office, Holden, a Democrat, again condemned as inadequate the level of education spending approved by the Republican-controlled Missouri Legislature.

"Their budget takes our state in the wrong direction, but at this point in the fiscal year the alternative to signing their budget would force a shutdown to Missouri schools," Holden said. "That action would not be in the best interests of Missouri children."

Republican leaders expressed relief that the governor was backing down from his previous hard-line stance.

"I learned the governor will ultimately come to the right conclusion. I just wish we hadn't been pushed quite this far," said Senate President Pro Tem Peter Kinder, R-Cape Girardeau.

The possibility that the new state fiscal year might begin Tuesday without a complete budget in place raised a host of legal and constitutional issues that all but guaranteed a lawsuit against the state.

It also left public school and higher education officials in limbo concerning their own budgets.

Cape Girardeau School District superintendent Mark Bowles called the end of the stalemate good news.

"Now we know where we stand and can make our projections," Bowles said.

Southeast Missouri State University president Dr. Ken Dobbins was also pleased the funding uncertainty had been resolved. The university waited until today to finalize it's budget, which was based on the expectation of $900,000 being withheld from Southeast's state appropriation.

"Hopefully, revenue will go up and we will not get as much withheld," Dobbins said.

Holden maintains that the overall $19.1 billion state operating budget is $240 million out of balance. As a result, he will withhold $190 million from elementary and secondary education, $20 million from higher education and $30 million from other state agencies on Tuesday.

Lawmakers have been meeting in a special legislative session since June 2 after Holden vetoed two-thirds of the spending they had approved in May. The legislature passed revised versions of four vetoed bills last week, using new federal funds to boost spending by $132.4 million, with the bulk earmarked for education.

While Holden accepted the new spending bills for health care and social services, he again vetoed the two education measures. Lawmakers made no changes in sending those bills back to the governor, who is expected to sign them into law no later than Monday.

Conservative win

Republicans declined to declare a political victory over Holden, but House Majority Floor Leader Jason Crowell, R-Cape Girardeau, and others said the outcome was a win for conservative fiscal policy.

"This is a fundamental change in the philosophy of government," Crowell said. "We are living within our means instead of taxing and spending."

Senate Minority Floor Leader Ken Jacob, D-Columbia, said the final budget marked a step backward for education after a decade of improvement.

"The losing sides are the school children and teachers in this state," Jacob said. "I don't think anyone wins in a situation like this."

The Senate passed the $4.6 billion elementary and secondary education bill 20-10. The $1 billion higher education appropriation passed 21-10. The House had already endorsed the measures.

Not counting the withholdings Holden said he must make, in terms of dollars the overall budget is roughly 1 percent under what the governor requested in January.

Holden will call a second special session in September when he will ask lawmakers to consider closing corporate tax loopholes and other methods of raising revenue to supplement education funding for the current fiscal year.

"It is my sincere hope that they will do the right thing when they get back in September, after they better understand the consequences of their poor choices," Holden said.

However, Republicans have been hostile to such proposals since taking control of both legislative chambers in January and appear unlikely to retreat from that position.

"I don't think there is a reason to have a special session in September," said House Speaker Catherine Hanaway, R-Warson Woods.

Holden acknowledged that possibility and said he would encourage an effort to go around the legislature and put a tax proposal on the ballot via the initiative petition process.

After the second-round of education vetoes last week, Holden amended the scope of the special session in an attempt to limit lawmakers to passage of temporary three-month spending bills that would give them time to consider a revenue package to fund a budget more to his liking. At the time he said passing appropriations bills for a full year would be unconstitutional.

He abandoned that stance Friday and said he could legally sign the bills.

mpowers@semissourian.com

(573) 635-4608

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