McCaskill questions governor on release of education funds

Sunday, April 18, 2004

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- State Auditor Claire McCaskill last week saw ulterior motives in Gov. Bob Holden's Good Friday decision to release $127 million in approved education funding he had withheld last summer.

McCaskill, who is seeking to claim the 2004 Democratic gubernatorial nomination from the incumbent, questioned Holden's explanation that the money to cover the withholding recently became available.

"None of this money appeared overnight," McCaskill said. "In fact, this money has been available for months and could have been released long ago."

McCaskill, along with some Republican lawmakers, also found curious the timing of the governor's announcement, which came three days after voters in 114 school districts considered local tax increases or bond issues. Insufficient state funding was a reason many districts cited in asking for voter approval of the ballot measures.

Holden claimed the Republican-led legislature had budgeted spending levels that exceed available revenue when he ordered the reduction in education funding. The governor had always maintained he would restore the spending -- $115 million for local school districts and $12 million for colleges and universities -- if he became convinced the state could afford to do so.

However, Holden said an upswing in state revenue collections was a not a factor in his decision. He instead said some unexpected savings had been found within the budget.

Among the claimed savings was from a delay in court action on a lawsuit that could cost the state $50 million in tax refunds to SBC Corp. McCaskill said the state has known since at least February that the case won't be heard until well after the current fiscal year ends on June 30.

Slapping back

Public opposition often proves an annoyance to those trying to achieve a certain policy goal. An increasingly common method of intimidating those standing in the way is to SLAPP them.

SLAPP, which stands for Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation, is the nickname given to litigation intended to muzzle residents who attempt to mobilize opposition to the initiatives of elected officials or corporate interests' efforts to win a favorable government action.

The SLAPP typically comes in the form of a defamation claim brought by the officeholder or company against the outspoken resident. Since defamation is difficult to prove, such lawsuits almost never prevail, but they can force the targets to spend substantial amounts of money to defend themselves in court.

"The lawsuits aren't intended to win," said state Sen. John Louden, R-Ballwin. "They are intended to silence critics."

A Louden-sponsored bill given preliminary approval by the Senate would enable defendants who can prove they are being sued simply for voicing their opinion to ask a judge to dismiss such cases before the long and costly evidentiary discovery process begins. If the judge agrees a case is a SLAPP, the plaintiff would have to pay the defendant's legal fees.

The president's man

U.S. Rep. Kenny Hulshof, R-Columbia, has been tapped as President George W. Bush's official campaign mouthpiece in Missouri.

Hulshof, who is seeking a fifth term in Congress, is a Sikeston native and former assistant prosecuting attorney in Cape Girardeau County.

Missouri is one of a handful of battleground states that is considered a must-win for both Bush and U.S. Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, the presumed Democratic presidential nominee, in November. Bush narrowly claimed Missouri's 11 electoral votes in 2000 by winning 50.4 percent of the popular vote.

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