Legislative review

Friday, May 21, 2004

In one important way, this year's session of the Missouri Legislature was smoother than previous sessions: Expectations of increased revenue thanks to an improving economy made the budgeting process much easier.

Some key pieces of legislation made it to the governor's desk: a constitutional amendment on same-sex marriage, foster-care reforms, a tougher Sunshine Law and tort reform. Voters across the state will get an opportunity to have their say on the same-sex marriage amendment, but Gov. Bob Holden has already vetoed the tort-reform plan, and the House was unable to muster enough votes for an override.

And some key pieces of legislation didn't survive the legislative process: a fix for the concealed-weapons law and a plan to ask voters for authority to create toll roads. Without a correction for a flaw in the concealed-weapons law, there will continue to be reluctance to issue permits, and the threat of legal entanglements still exists. And, even though the economy is improving, the Missouri Department of Transportation still faces enormous spending needs to maintain existing highways and upgrade the state's roads. Without the ability to establish toll roads, other sources of funding will be required, and that's not so easy.

One piece of legislation that went nowhere in this session was a bill to raise taxes and close some loopholes. The Republican leadership of both chambers stuck to their pledge to fund state government without more taxes.

As for the state budget, legislators expect enough revenue to be generated by an improved economy to cover $1 billion in additional spending, which exceeds Holden's request at the beginning of the year. The good news is that economic growth and employment are improving at a rate that is likely to sustain the spending increases. The not-so-good news is that this year's spending trend is reminiscent of ballooning budgets during the economic boom of the 1990s.

Now that the session is over, attention will switch to the political campaigns of candidates running for legislative positions and statewide offices. A large number of experienced legislators won't be running for re-election this year because of term limits. The 2005 session will have to rely on the ability of new legislators to be quick learners.

While a vast body of experience is leaving the legislature, the first wave of term-limit replacements has already shown that exceptional talent is waiting in the wings. These new faces in Jefferson City might never have had an opportunity to contribute to the legislative process without term limits.

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