Speaker trying to force a boost in school funding

Sunday, May 5, 2002

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- With a constitutional deadline looming, House Speaker Jim Kreider is engaged in a game of budget brinkmanship.

The General Assembly has until midnight Friday to complete the budget for fiscal year 2003, which begins July 1. Both the House and Senate have passed versions of the approximately $19 billion spending plan, but must hammer out the differences before sending it to Gov. Bob Holden.

When there are variants in a bill that has cleared both chambers, conference committees consisting of both senators and representatives are appointed to negotiate a unified version that can then be passed and forwarded to the governor.

But a week after the Senate completed its work on the 12 bills that make up the budget, Kreider, D-Nixa, has refused to name conferees for all but four of the measures.

At issue is full funding of the formula that distributes state money to local school districts. Kreider wants to pump $175 million more into the formula, while senators back a $100 million increase.

By not naming conferees to the remaining budget bills, Kreider is hoping to pressure the Senate into accepting the House position.

Some lawmakers feel the speaker's inaction could prevent them from passing the budget on time. Not so, said Kreider.

"We've got forever to get the budget closed," Kreider said. "My No. 1 priority has to be dealt with first. The process has slowed, but it has not stopped."

In response, Senate Appropriations Committee chairman John T. Russell, R-Lebanon, on Friday delayed action on a bill that would authorize use of state savings to help cover an immediate $230 million shortfall for the current budget year.

Senate President Pro Tem Peter Kinder, R-Cape Girardeau, for the moment is staying out of the fight.

"That is part of the appropriations chess game between the House and Senate," Kinder said.

SEMO could get IOU

For now, the Office of Administration is backing off of deferring $137.2 million worth of payments to the two- and four-year public colleges for the months of May and June.

However, while the schools' May payments appear safe, there is still a possibility June payments totaling $68.6 million could arrive late. OA is considering holding back the money as the state grapples with a revenue shortfall for the fiscal year ending June 30.

Southeast Missouri State University would temporarily lose $3.3 million for every month payments are deferred.

Joe Martin of the Coordinating Board for Higher Education, which oversees Missouri's public colleges, said the situation is being reviewed daily.

"If a deferment is necessary, we are hoping it is just a matter of a temporary delay of payment," Martin said.

Tax petition drive

An anti-smoking group says it has more than enough signatures to put a proposed 55-cent hike in the per-pack tax on cigarettes on the November ballot.

Citizens for a Healthy Missouri planned to submit more than 120,000 signatures from registered voters to the secretary of state's office on Saturday. A group spokesman said only 78,143 valid signatures are needed to gain ballot access.

The signatures were collected in six of the state's nine congressional district, but not the 8th District, which includes Southeast Missouri.

Missouri's current 17-cent tax per pack is among the lowest in the nation. The state is tied with West Virginia and Alabama for the 41st highest cigarette tax among the 50 states, plus the District of Columbia.

The proposed increase, if approved, would push Missouri to 12th on the list. Washington state has the highest tax, nearly $1.43 per pack.

The additional tax would raise $342.6 million a year. The money would be earmarked for health care programs.

Term limits vote sought

Missouri voters would be asked to tweak legislative term limits on a proposed constitutional amendment that the Senate has sent to the House.

Voters approved limits of eight years per chamber in 1992. However, a partial term counts as a full term against the cap.

For example, someone elected to fill the final year of someone else's four-year Senate term currently could run for only one full term themselves and would be forced out after five years.

The latest proposal, which passed 24-7, would allow a lawmaker to serve eight years in addition to any partial term. If it clears the General Assembly, the question would appear on the November ballot.

Southeast Missouri's three senators split on the vote. Kinder and state Sen. Danny Staples, D-Eminence, voted for it while state Sen. Bill Foster, R-Poplar Bluff, voted against it.

Foster was forced to leave the House after less than seven years because he had served a partial term.

mpowers@semissourian.com

(573) 635-4608

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