MARYLAND HEIGHTS, Mo. -- It's called damage control, and it's not just something done by a Missouri community after severe flooding. It's also done by public officials after moments of controversy.
Last Friday brought the crest of a budget clash between Democratic Gov. Bob Holden and House Republicans. The House GOP blocked Holden's plan to tap the so-called Rainy Day Fund to cover growing budget shortfalls, and Holden responded with deeper cuts in funding for state services through June 30.
Since then, both sides have been trying to explain their actions to the public.
In an unusual move, House Republican Leader Catherine Hanaway and two colleagues -- in the midst of the last and busiest week of the session -- hopped on a private plane to St. Louis County on Wednesday. There they met with farmers of partially flooded land and talked about the budget.
Specifically, Hanaway and some other Republicans say the emergency fund should be used for actual disasters, not for just any old budgetary rainy day.
This week, amid a series of literally rainy days, Missouri's low-lying areas are coping with high waters and bracing for more rain to come. Looming overhead is the specter of the Flood of '93 -- the catastrophe that prompted the state's only use to date of the Rainy Day Fund.
"We might have a real disaster," Hanaway said, looking over 70 acres of flooded corn crop near the Missouri River. "I hope and pray we don't. I hope and pray we don't have to tap the Rainy Day Fund when rivers start going over levees. ... We need to make sure that we have some cushion left if Mother Nature or some other force intervenes."
Explains budget cuts
Holden has singled out Hanaway for leading the Republican House charge to block use of the Rainy Day Fund, from which the governor sought to use $120 million to avoid deeper cuts in the budget year that ends June 30. The legislation had been sponsored by a leading Senate Republican, and cleared the Senate 31-2.
On Wednesday, Holden visited an elementary school in Nixa, his fourth stop on a three-day tour explaining why further budget withholdings were needed.
Holden, as a legislator, was a co-sponsor of the bill that created the Rainy Day Fund. He and other Democrats say the fund always was intended to cover budget emergencies like the current one.
In recent days, Holden spokesman Jerry Nachtigal has been quoting former Gov. John Ashcroft, the Republican who pushed for the creation of the fund. In his 1986 State of the State speech, Ashcroft said the fund "would cushion the impact of any future economic downturn or precipitous demand on state revenues."
That closely matches the depiction of the current fiscal situation offered by Holden, who last Friday announced large cuts to state colleges and universities and said 6,000 state employees would go without pay for two days.
Holden already had withheld about $600 million from the state's $19.2 billion budget for the current fiscal year. The additional cuts are aimed at covering an additional $230 million shortfall caused largely by lower-than-expected state income taxes.
Hanaway doesn't dispute that the fund should be tapped during the toughest of economic times.
"What I'm saying is that there is the potential for times to get a lot tougher," she said.
Also noteworthy is the location of the various visits. On Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday this week, Holden brought his message to O'Fallon, Kirksville, Lee's Summit and Nixa. Three of the four are Republican districts.
On Hanaway's trip to St. Louis County, she was accompanied by Reps. Jane Cunningham and Carl Bearden. They flew on a private plane borrowed from a Republican donor. All three lawmakers make their homes in the St. Louis area. But they didn't visit a Republican district, they visited that of Chris Liese, a Maryland Heights Democrat.
Reached by phone Wednesday in Jefferson City, Liese expressed surprise that his colleagues would even briefly leave the Capitol on one of the session's final days.
"I'm a Democrat," he said. "I can't afford to fly on a plane."