Legislature clears most big issues before final week

Sunday, May 8, 2005

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Having already disposed of most of the major issues they set out to address this year, lawmakers decided to pull a Ferris Bueller on Friday and take the day off.

Although the legislature usually doesn't meet on Fridays, during the final two weeks of the legislative session it traditionally has in order to ensure it has sufficient time to clear key items on its agenda.

With the legislative and executive branches both under Republican control for the first time in 84 years and philosophically in tune, however, most of the big issues got knocked off fairly early. In fact, two matters that sparked much controversy and debate in recent years -- overhauls of the civil litigation and workers' compensation systems -- were wrapped up in March.

And even though the state budget was several weeks behind schedule in clearing the House of Representatives, lawmakers still managed to give final approval to the $19.2 billion plan on Thursday -- one day before the constitutional deadline for doing so. Given the progress to date, Senate President Pro Tem Michael Gibbons, R-Kirkwood, said the legislature has ample time to finish up work on the remaining priority bills before it adjourns for the year at 6 p.m. Friday.

"We don't have that train wreck of major issues colliding at the end of the year," Gibbons said.

The biggest remaining issue is passage of a revised system for distributing state money to local schools. A House committee defeated the measure late last month, but it was later revived under pressure from Gov. Matt Blunt and legislative leaders. The House is expected to take up the bill early this week. The Senate has already passed it, but differences between the chambers will need to be resolved.

Other issues the legislature will likely deal with this week include an omnibus crime bill, abortion restrictions and the governor's economic stimulus package.

It is within the realm of possibility, Gibbons said, that lawmakers may finish before the deadline.

Rice dispute

Final passage of the budget was delayed for nearly two hours as the Senate debated a last-minute addition of $1.1 million to build an agricultural pharmaceutical facility at Maryville. The project, which neither chamber had previously approved, was slipped in during negotiations over the final budget.

California-based Ventria Bioscience would use the facility in northwest Missouri to develop pharmaceutical uses for rice. The company's plan, however, has stirred up a hornet's nest in the Bootheel.

Ventria had intended to grow genetically modified rice in the region until St. Louis brewing giant Anheuser Busch Cos. and other major consumers threatened to boycott Missouri rice if the project went forward. A deal eventually was struck under which Ventria agreed to grow its rice elsewhere, although that location remains to be determined.

Given the controversy, some senators wondered why the state was committing taxpayer money to the project, especially since the appropriation never received a full discussion before it was added to the budget.

"My concern with this is we are proceeding in a bad time in the wrong way," said state Sen. Victor Callahan, D-Kansas City.

State Sen. David Klindt, in whose district the facility would be located, said plans for the facility had been well-known for months.

"We never tried to hide it from anyone," said Klindt, R-Bethany.

The Senate eventually approved the bill. Missouri taxpayers would pay $1.1 million a year for 15 years to help pay off the debt on the $30 million facility.

mpowers@semissourian.com

(573) 635-4608

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