Session finds swift accord on prescriptions

A new plan for taxpayers to help buy prescription drugs for some elderly Missourians appears headed for speedy passage in the special session of the legislature, which opened last week. Two other agenda items -- one to exempt the early federal tax refunds from becoming taxable state income, and another to make changes in a 1999 law regulating livestock prices -- have their detractors but are likely to be acted on soon.

The steamroller that is producing a new prescription-drug plan appears to be more logical than the current tax credits that are costing the state about $85 million a year instead of the anticipated $20 million. But despite the new proposal's logic, spending estimates show it will cost just as much as the old plan in a year or two. (A Senate version passed Friday actually would cost millions more than the plan it is intended to replace.)

Part of the governor's stated reasoning for putting the prescription issue on the special-session agenda was because of the state's tight financial situation. Holden has cut millions of dollars of planned spending already, and he is targeting more cuts.

Under the prescription plan that has solid support in both the House and Senate, senior citizens would have to qualify on the basis of income, pay an enrollment fee and meet a deductible before the state would start paying 60 percent of prescription costs up to $5,000 annually. Under the old plan, every Missouri over 65 who filed a state income-tax return and met certain income guidelines automatically received a check, even if they had no prescription bills.

Government assistance for prescriptions for the elderly has become a popular political gambit. Both Democrats and Republicans see it as an easy way to curry favor with a voting bloc that is usually well-represented at the polls. In fact, Holden's aim in making this issue the centerpiece of the special session was influenced far more by politics than any real need. Medicaid programs already pay for drugs for those who, because of income, need and other factors, qualify for the program.

And, as Missouri legislators have quickly discovered, even a limited prescription plan that benefits only low-income senior citizens will carry a considerable price tag.

Action on the two other items on the special-session agenda -- tax refunds and livestock pricing -- face some hurdles.

Missouri is one of a handful of states that count federal refunds as taxable income. Unless an exception is made for the early refund currently arriving in most taxpayers' mailboxes, part of the refund designed to stimulate the economy will have to be spent on state taxes next year.

Many Democrats already consider the federal refunds -- part of the overall Bush tax cut -- to be little more than a Republican lollipop. And with a tight state revenue situation and state agencies already agonizing over budget clamps, there is ample opportunity for a bloc of legislators to vote against any special exemption that would lower state revenue by more than $30 million.

As for the 1999 livestock pricing law that was supposed to guarantee small producers the same market prices as large suppliers, House Speaker Jim Kreider has already said he doesn't think the law needs any tinkering. Instead, he would rather go after the packing houses that favor high-volume livestock producers. The unintended result of the state law is packers have quit paying cash for live animals for fear of being accused of price discrimination.

The special session can only last 60 days. Most area legislators have optimistically predicted swift action on all three items. We'll see.

Window tinting still a big concern

Yet another item that seems to fit in the category of things that need to be fixed right away rather than waiting until the start of the regular legislative session in January is a new state law regulating tinted windows in motor vehicles. The new law allows more windows to be tinted but with less tint than was previously allowed. Some legislators say they intended to grandfather in the windows with darker tint, but that didn't happen. As a result, hundreds of vehicle owners must spend money to have the darker tint removed in order to comply with the new law -- and then pay again to have legal tint installed.

Despite appeals from around the state, Gov. Bob Holden has been firm on his decision not to put the window-tint issue on the agenda. Because of the impact the new law is having, he should reconsider.