Lawmakers say session a success

Sunday, May 19, 2002

The Associated PressJEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- State lawmakers are declaring the 2002 legislative session a success, pointing to a balanced budget with millions extra for public education and a ballot question asking voters to raise $511 million in new taxes for roads.

They are also pointing fingers of blame for millions of dollars slashed from higher education, social services and other state agencies and for the failure of a bill pledging $644 million to stadiums and other developments.

At times in the final days of the session, which ended Friday, many lawmakers said they feared a special session was imminent.

Lawmakers scrambled to shore up a shortfall in the fiscal 2002 budget, but failed. They also failed on their first try to balance the fiscal 2003 budget, leaving a $167 million shortfall that prompted Holden to threaten a special session.

Under pressure, legislators found a way to cover most of the gap. They also succeeded in providing a $133 million boost over the $2 billion base for elementary and secondary education.

"Working together we balanced the budget and we funded it," Holden said after Friday's adjournment.

But to help balance the budget, departments such as higher education and social services saw significant funding reductions

Cuts to higher education resulted in student tuition spikes across the state. Cuts to the Department of Social Services' budget could mean thousands of the state's poor and disabled will have to spend more of their own money to qualify for the state Medicaid health-care program.

"That will come back to haunt us as one of our biggest failures," said Sen. Pat Dougherty, D-St. Louis.

Legislators also failed to agree on a fix for a $230 million shortfall in the current year's budget.

Holden wanted to dip into the state's emergency savings account but the idea failed in the House because of Republican opposition. So Holden announced further cuts in the 2002 budget, including $83 million cut from colleges and universities and a two-day furlough of 6,000 state employees.

Holden was critical of House Minority Leader Catherine Hanaway, R-Warson Woods, and other Republican House members for preventing the use of the Rainy Day Fund.

"A stubborn Republican minority in the House blocked access to the fund and forced these cuts," Holden said. "Ultimately, many of these members will have to explain to the voters in their districts why they harmed these groups."

Republicans, however, said Hanaway's stance kept the state in better financial footing for dealing with fiscal 2004's budget, which some suspect will be even harder to balance.

Senate President Pro Tem Peter Kinder, R-Cape Girardeau, credited Hanaway.

"I didn't always agree" with her, Kinder said. "Looking back, the stand ... played a role in the miracle ... of balancing that state budget without new taxes."

Although debate on budget issues used up a lot of time, lawmakers still passed 216 bills, most of which must be signed by the governor before becoming law.

Some of the bills make significant changes in state law. Others are less consequential to every day life.

The governor will have to decide on such legislation as making Dec. 15 "Bill of Rights Day," requiring the Pledge of Allegiance to be said weekly in public schools and naming the Missouri Fox Trotting Horse the official state horse.

Thanks to legislation passed on the last day, voters will get to decide whether to raise the state's 17-cent motor fuel tax by 4 cents and the state's 4.225 percent sales tax by one-half cent. The estimated $511 million in new revenues would go primarily to transportation.

The Legislature also passed a bill revising Missouri's election laws. It includes a provision allowing people whose eligibility is questioned to cast provisional ballots.

Under another bill, county assessors would be required to make more thorough inspections before increasing a home's assessed value by 15 percent or more. But the bill would not take effect statewide for several years.

Lawmakers also passed legislation extending until 2007 a program that gives health care to children of working parents who earn too much for traditional Medicaid but don't have private insurance.

Meanwhile, a plan to raise money for St. Louis and Kansas City stadiums died, as did proposals to allow people to carry concealed guns and to remove restrictions on how often a race track can have simulcast betting.

"We are supposed to come down here and fight as hard as we can for Missourians. That's what we did," Hanaway said. "I'm proud of what we did."

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