Legislative session begins with elections looming

Thursday, January 5, 2006

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Republican legislative leaders encouraged colleagues Wednesday to set aside potential election-year spats to enact new health-care programs and property protections as they opened their 2006 session.

The House and Senate convened for business a little after noon Wednesday on a largely ceremonial day reserved for laying out legislative priorities. Lawmakers will hear Republican Gov. Matt Blunt's budget and policy proposals Jan. 11 and then will work about four days a week until the session ends May 12.

Republicans hold a 96-64 majority over Democrats in the House and a 22-11 majority in the Senate. All of the House seats and half of the Senate seats are up for election this year.

Having accomplished nearly their entire agenda in 2005, the Republican lawmakers and governor have less of a natural rallying point this year.

But Blunt, House Speaker Rod Jetton and Senate President Pro Tem Michael Gibbons share some common goals for the session: more money for public schools, new restrictions on the use of eminent domain to take private property, more changes to the Medicaid health-care program they cut last year, longer sentences for sex offenses against children, and state aid to poor people struggling with high winter heating bills.

Noticeably absent from the opening-day goals laid out by Jetton and Gibbons was one of Blunt's more contentious proposals -- a requirement that school districts spend 65 percent of their funding on items related to student instruction.

Also unmentioned by Republican leaders was the contentious topic of whether to ban or protect embryonic stem-cell research -- a debate likely coming to the November ballot, whether or not lawmakers act.

Although budget forecasts remain tight, Gibbons and Jetton declared the economy improving -- and along with it the state's finances -- and pledged to give public schools the full $137 million increase called for under a new school funding formula that begins phasing in this July. They said it was a result of last year's package of pro-business laws, enacted quickly and over the objections of many Democrats.

But lobbyists for businesses and developers are wary of one of this year's big initiatives -- an effort that would make it harder for governmental entities and others to use eminent domain to take private property for redevelopment projects.

While stressing that eminent domain should remain for public purposes, Gibbons, R-Kirkwood, declared to applause: "The complete disregard for the rights of property owners must not be tolerated."

A year's passage has done little to ease tensions over last year's Republican-backed cuts that eliminated Medicaid coverage for 90,000 people and reduced benefits for hundreds of thousands of others. On Wednesday, a group of Medicaid activists said they were beginning a petition drive to place the restoration of the many of the Medicaid cuts on the November ballot.

Partly because of weighty topics such as Medicaid changes and eminent domain, some politicians fear that partisanship and intraparty disagreements both could fester in 2006.

Term-limited Sen. Pat Dougherty, entering the last session of his 28-year career, bemoaned that Republicans -- even those on a special Medicaid committee -- remain opposed to restoring most of the cuts.

"It was an anathema to bring up the idea we needed to go back and address the 100,000 people cut last year," said Dougherty, D-St. Louis.

Jetton, R-Marble Hill, set a goal of restarting a trimmed-down version of a repealed Medicaid program for the working disabled, something Senate leaders also supported. Gibbons listed broader health care goals -- access to health care for all, encouraging electronic medical records and prescriptions, and rooting out Medicaid fraud.

But House Minority Leader Jeff Harris, D-Columbia, said "any changes this year to the state's health care system is a day late and a dollar short."

Partly because of weighty topics such as Medicaid changes and eminent domain, some politicians fear that partisanship and intraparty disagreements both could fester in 2006.

"In this election year, the temptation for all of us to put politics and party above good policy will be strong," Jetton said in a speech to colleagues. "The desire to fund new programs for your district or region will be even greater. The need to have a bill passed with your name on it to help your re-election will be hard to resist. And all of these things could make personal conflict more likely."

But, Jetton added: "I want all of us to do what we believe is the right thing. And I want each of us, both Democrats and Republicans, to come together and vigorously debate the laws that affect all Missourians."

Gibbons urged similar restraint in debate.

Because it's an election year, "we must each work extra hard to have the clash of ideas essential to a robust democracy without the personal attacks or rabid partisanship that is so destructive to our quest," he said.

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