GOP positioned to press agenda in 2005 session

Sunday, January 2, 2005

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Starting this week Missouri Republicans will be in the driver's seat of state government. They will also be in the hot seat.

Having controlled the state Senate for the last four years and both legislative chambers for the last two, the GOP has wielded tremendous influence on the policy agenda. The missing component, of course, was a Republican governor.

In different ways this turned out to be both a curse and a blessing. Although Republicans were unable to get cherished priorities such as an overhaul of Missouri's civil litigation system past Democratic Gov. Bob Holden's veto, they were also able to deflect public criticism of the state's budget problems on to the man in charge, even though they too shared the burden for addressing the situation.

With Republican governor-elect Matt Blunt taking office Jan. 10 and friendly majorities in both legislative chambers, the full weight of policy decisions -- including the blame should those decisions prove unpopular -- will fall squarely on the GOP.

State senator-elect Jason Crowell, R-Cape Girardeau, said more will be accomplished since the legislative and executive branches will be philosophically in tune.

"It is going to be very, very refreshing to have an executive who wants to be partners with the General Assembly," Crowell said.

The 2005 legislative session, which begins Wednesday, will mark the first since 1921 in which Republicans control both the governor's office and the legislature. Having made strong legislative gains during November's elections, the GOP will hold a 97-66 advantage over Democrats in the House of Representatives and a 23-11 majority in the Senate.

Although Southeast Missouri will lose a legislative leader when lieutenant govenor-elect Peter Kinder, R-Cape Girardeau, steps down as Senate president pro tem, it will gain one with the expected election of state Rep. Rod Jetton, R-Marble Hill, as House speaker.

Out of the gate, the legislature is expected to move quickly on a pro-business agenda, many aspects of which Holden thwarted as special interest giveaways.

Having helped elect Blunt, business groups anticipate the new governor will be receptive to proposals aimed at reducing civil lawsuits, tightening the workers' compensation system and lessening government regulation of private enterprise.

Gary Marble, president of Associated Industries of Missouri, said the lack of action on these issues has hurt the state's business climate.

"With the changes in the legislature and in the governor's office, this is the first time there has been a shot at real reform in more than 40 years," Marble said.

Since civil litigation reform cleared the legislature in each of the last two years only to fall to Holden's veto, that issue in particular could make rapid progress this year.

The most recent version of the bill would have restricted where cases could be brought, reduced financial liability of some defendants and reinstated a cap on damages for pain and suffering in medical malpractice cases.

House Minority Floor Leader Jeff Harris, D-Columbia, said his caucus is interested in meaningful tort reform but wants to ensure the ability of victims to seek redress through the courts is protected.

"We hope there is an opportunity for our voice to be heard when talking about the issue of changes to the civil justice system," Harris said. "The question is: How extreme are those changes going to be?"

Possibly the most contentious task of the session will be rewriting the formula for distributing state financial aid to local schools. Rather than being a partisan debate, the fault lines on this issue will be most evident among districts of varying degrees of wealth trying to expand their shares of state education funding.

The formula was last rewritten in 1993 on the heels of a court decision that declared the previous funding mechanism unconstitutional. The legislature responded by shifting more state money to poorer districts. As a result, districts with great local wealth had their share of state funding frozen.

There is general agreement that the current formula is no longer fair, and another court case on that point is slowly working its way through the system. No consensus, however, has yet developed among policy makers on how to fix the problem.

Whereas the current formula was bolstered by a massive infusion of new money from a corresponding tax increase, Republican leaders are dead set against raising taxes. Without additional funding, any formula rewrite by necessity would have to reallocate existing revenue, which would inevitably lead to bitter political fights between potential winners and losers.

Although all sides are committed to tackling the education problem this session, there is a strong possibility overhauling the system will be a multiyear effort.

"We cannot get that done in a year, but we can get started," said state Rep. Gayle Kingery, R-Poplar Bluff, a retired teacher. "The sooner we do, the sooner we'll get it done."

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