Constitutional changes on deck for '04

Monday, December 8, 2003

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Last January when Gov. Bob Holden proposed a state budget that included roughly $700 million in spending contingent on future voter-approved taxes or other legislative action, some critics dubbed it "phantom revenue."

Since the state fiscal year began in July and the soonest tax proposals could go on the ballot was August, many lawmakers feared the budget was a recipe for fiscal disaster.

While the Republican-led legislature declined to put tax measures up for a statewide vote this year, state Rep. Brad Roark, R-Springfield, is proposing a constitutional change that would prevent future governors from crafting budgets that count on money subject to voter approval.

"Let's say the legislature had passed the tax increases and inserted them in the budget," Roark said. "We would have had a $700 million deficit if we expected those revenues and people didn't pass them. I just think that is very dangerous."

The Missouri Constitution currently allows the governor to submit a budget to the legislature that is based on estimated revenue from existing sources plus any laws needed to increase revenue to cover expenditures.

Roark's proposal is one of 16 suggested constitutional amendments lawmakers had prefiled as of Friday for the 2004 legislative session, which begins Jan. 7. Any proposed changes that win legislative approval would have to be ratified by a simple majority of voters in November.

Some of the measures are relatively fresh ideas, while others have been fighting for a ballot spot for years.

One of the newer proposals, filed by state Sen. Sarah Steelman, R-Rolla, would constitutionally establish marriage as being between a man and a woman, a policy already set in state law. House Majority Floor Leader Jason Crowell, R-Cape Girardeau, is planning to sponsor a similar measure in the lower chamber.

The amendments are in response to a recent ruling by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court that authorized same-sex marriages in that state.

"Marriage needs to be defined in the Missouri Constitution as between a man and a woman to eliminate any doubt if this issue is challenged in Missouri courts," Crowell said.

Amendments submitted in both chambers with bipartisan support would enshrine the right to hunt, fish and harvest game in the state Bill of Rights. State Rep. Peter Myers, R-Sikeston, is a co-sponsor of the House version.

"We want it to be in the constitution so no activist group can come in and preclude the right of Missourians to hunt and fish," Myers said. "It is as simple as that."

While the Senate version, sponsored by state Sen. Harold Caskey, D-Butler, includes language that preserves the Missouri Conservation Commission's power over game management, the House measure does not. Myers said the House sponsors have no intention of hamstringing the commission and may need to add wording to that effect.

Toll roads

Another proposal with bipartisan sponsorship would give the Missouri Department of Transportation the authority to build and maintain toll roads. MoDOT officials plan to push for passage of the measure, though it has encountered a lukewarm reception in recent years. Missouri voters have twice rejected toll-road amendments, in 1971 and 1992.

State Sen. Matt Bartle, R-Lee's Summit, wants to abolish the Missouri State Highways and Transportation Commission as MoDOT's constitutionally independent governing body and put the department under a director appointed by the governor with Senate approval.

While that idea had been an official part of the House Republican agenda as recently as 2001, it has never enjoyed much support in the Senate. Holden, a Democrat, endorsed the proposal in his State of the State address this year, but neither chamber gave it serious consideration.

Amendments that will likely be dead on arrival barring a massive shift in philosophy would extend or repeal legislative term limits.

State Rep. Dan Ward, D-Bonne Terre, suggests allowing incumbents to serve as long as 12 years per chamber instead of the current eight years. State Sen. Ken Jacob, D-Columbia, wants voters to reconsider their 1992 decision to impose term limits.

mpowers@semissourian.com

(573) 635-4608

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