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The Governor Gets Tough

May 13, 1999
By: Pervaiz Shallwani, Clayton Bellamy and David Grebe
State Capital Bureau
Links: HB 516, HB 65, SB 335

JEFFERSON CITY - The closing days of Missouri's legislative session took a dramatic turn Wednesday when the governor issued a harshly worded attack on state lawmakers for passing a proposal to raise their pensions.

Just one day after the pension bill cleared the legislature, Gov. Mel Carnahan sent a formal message to both the House and Senate announcing he would veto the bill -- calling the retirement increase for lawmakers "excessive, unreasonable and self-serving."

He then went on to warn lawmakers that if they passed a tax-cut bill higher than he thinks the state can afford, he would veto the bill and call lawmakers immediately back into a special session to work on tax cuts.

"It gives senior members more on retirement than their pay," Carnahan said. "That is the portion that must come out."

The bill, also included pension increases for teachers, state employees, police officers, firefighters and widows of these employees. Carnahan said he would sign a bill that took out the legislative increase.

Both the House and Senate quickly acted to pass a retirement bill for state workers without the extra legislative pension boost. But Carnahan's attack was met by an angry response from his fellow Democrats.

Sen. Danny Staples, D-Eminence, arose in the Senate to express his disgust with the governor's actions.

"I will override a veto on partial birth abortion and I will vote to either kill the tax-cut bill, or override a veto."

Columbia Sen. Ken Jacob also criticized the governor's action to his colleagues. "I would vote to override the governor's veto," he said on the Senate floor of the legislative pay raise."

Jacob is the Senate sponsor of the tax-cut bill that was the other focus of the governor's message to the legislature.

The measure now is before a House-Senate conference committee.

Carnahan warned legislators that he would veto the bill if they exceeded what he thought the state could afford. In a news conference with reporters, Carnahan put that figure at $200 million per year. Republicans have proposed a cut of nearly $400 million.

Carnahan's actions and his words cost the governor brought an immediate end a six-year honeymoon the Democratic governor has enjoyed with the Democratic majority in the legislature.

Not since 1970, has a lame-duck governor launched such a critical attack on his own party's members in the legislature.

In other legislative action Wednesday,

* Hate crimes against gays, women and the disabled would be eligible for tougher sentences under an amendment the House added to this year's omnibus anti-crime bill.

The amendment was introduced by Columbia Rep. Tim Harlan who said it sends a strong message Missouri is serious about hate crimes.

"We need as a society to address the sexual orientation issue and the fact that there is discrimination," said Harlan, a democrat.

The House passed the crime bill--with Harlan's amendment attached--along a strict party vote, thus sending it to a conference committee where House and Senate members will work out the differences.

The bill contains softer sentences for lesser felonies and a provision to put the sex offender list on the web. The Attorney General has attacked the measure and its sponsor, Sen. Harold Caskey, D-Butler, for the softer sentencing.

House Republican Leader Delbert Scott said his party opposed the bill because of the softer sentencing and not for the hate crime provision.

"The bill is a reversal of the state's philosophy of the last few years--building more prisons and getting criminals off the street," he said. "The bill changes that. It returns criminals to the street."

However, Republican Mike Gibbons proposed, but later withdrew an amendment that would have repealed the hate crime law altogether--a proposal to which several Republicans voiced approval.

That proposal triggered passion-filled debate that had Rep. Russ Gunn, D-St. Louis, in tears on the House floor.

"When I was at the store earlier, people were staring at me expecting me to steal something," said Gunn, who is black. "My son can't walk down the street without the police stopping him thinking he's a gang-banger."

Harlan addressed Gibbons saying, "I think you'd see it differently if you were a member of one of those groups."

Gibbons argued that hate crime laws have a paradoxical effect.

"Those laws create separation, create differences, push people farther apart" rather than reduce discrimination, he said.

Republican Rep. Jon Dolan, D-St. Charles County, supported Harlan's amendment but tempered that by denouncing homosexuality.

"I still believe homosexuality is immoral, but I can't support the repeal," he said.

Harlan said he believes his hate crime expansion provision will survive.

* The next election is 18 months away, but race to for Lieutenant Governor is already starting. Sen. Bill Kenney, R-Lee's Summit, said Wednesday that he's getting in the race.

Kenney said he's focusing on three areas - improving education, Missouri business, and life for the elderly.

Kenney also said he plans to give all his energy to the job.

"I think the Lieutenant Governor's job is a full-time job," Kenney said. Current Lt. Gov. Roger Wilson considers the job part-time - and has taken on an outside job.

Kenney said his conservative beliefs will help him in the race. "I'm against expanding government and I favor easing the tax burden on Missouri families," he said.

Currently, Kenney faces competition from St. Charles County Executive Joe Ortwerth in the Republican primary. Two Democratic candidates - Sen. Joe Maxwell of Mexico and Rep. Gracia Maxwell of New Bloomfield - are also seeking the post.

* Tax exempt accounts for private and parochial school tuition was defeated in the Senate.

Sen. Ken Jacob, D-Columbia, fought off the proposal to two different bills arguing it would violate the constitutional ban against government support of religion.

The debate included a rare feud between two urban black Democrats - Sen. Mary Bland, D-Kansas City, and Sen. Bill Clay, D-St. Louis City.

"We need to find a way to enhance the education of every child," Bland said. The tax credit, she argued, "will only help a privileged few."

But Clay said failing schools in St. Louis City helped guide his turnabout. "We don't need to prop up public education that teaches a 19th century method to kids that are about to enter the 21st century," Clay said.

* A bill to increase the number of license plates became suddenly controversial - after several lawmakers expressed concerns about a "respect life" license plate.

Funds from the plates go to create the Missouri Alternatives to Abortion Fund. The fund can also be supported by general revenue and private grants - all administered by a new "Missouri Right to Life Commission."

One thing the commission would do is to find "at-risk" women and encourage them not to have abortions.

"They're going to go out and find women who might have an abortion and counsel them," said Rep. Vicky Riback Wilson, D-Columbia.

One problem, according to Wilson, is that the Department of Revenue is supposed to display the plates in license offices - as well as information about "alternatives to abortion."

The Governor is directed to consider individuals "recommended by right-to-life organizations" to serve on the Commission.

Abortion rights opponents said Missouri should express its disdain for abortion. "This reflects the will of the legislature," said Sam Lee, lobbyist for Campaign for Life Missouri. "We take sides on social issues all the time," he said.

Drivers who choose to purchase "respect life" license plates must pay a $25 fee - to the Missouri Alternatives to Abortion fund. If you buy the "Respect Life" plates, Wilson noted, you don't have to pay regular registration fees. "That's less than we require from our veterans," Wilson said.

Several veterans groups can also get specialized plates under the bill.

The Senate delayed action on the bill Wednesday. "Did you know there's a rumor the Governor might veto this bill?" Sen. Peter Kinder asked the Senate.

"I don't know how he could not veto it," Wilson said. "This could grow into a giant bureaucracy."