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Key Point at Hand for Holden

September 07, 2001
By: Robert Sandler
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - Missouri's legislative special session has moved halfway to handing Gov. Bob Holden a legislative slam dunk -- after months of predicitons by members of both parties that Holden's failures were guaranteeing he would be a one-term chief of state.

Modified versions of all three of his proposals cleared both the full Senate and House committees in the first three days of the session.

The special session is an attempt by Holden, a Democrat, to force legislators to deal with issues such as the state's prescription drug benefit for senior citizens, changes in the livestock pricing system, and exempting Missourians from paying state taxes on the federal tax rebate.

Complicating matters further is this month's announcement of the fall resignation of the governor's chief of staff, Julie Gibson. She will be leaving her post Nov. 1 to take a consulting job with the Missouri Democratic Party. Holden announced that a search for a replacement would begin immediately.

Missouri's program offering a tax credit for elderly prescription drug users is costing the state four times more than the original estimate. The governor wants to keep legislators at work until a resolution can be reached that helps only those who need it the most.

Holden created a task force, led by Democratic Lt. Gov. Joe Maxwell, that he charged with proposing the workings of a new benefit. The panel recommended a new program that would end up costing the state nearly as much money as the current program does.

The panel recommended that the state institute a program that distributes benefits based on income. The program would contract out some management and administrative duties to private companies. The plan now will go before the state legislature.

The issue of livestock pricing is an attempt to level the playing field for Missouri farmers. A committee led by Sen. John Cauthorn, R-Mexico, has proposed changes to the existing law with the hope that new legislation will allow major livestock buyers to return to Missouri.

A proposal that would exempt Missourians from paying state taxes on this year's federal tax rebate will also be debated during the special session. The bill has widespread support in the legislature despite shortfalls in the state budget.

Holden has seen many of his legislative priorities fail since he took office in January, and many of his positions have been roundly criticized by members of his own party.

His major initiative during the last legislative session, increasing taxes in order to fund the state Transportation Department, did not even reach a vote in the GOP-controlled Senate.

This January, Democrats lost control of the state Senate for the first time since 1949. Democrats continue to hold power in the state House, but the current leadership is considered more conservative than it has been in many years.

Holden has been trying to find ways for the state to come up with more revenue to offset the budget deficit for this year, which will include cutting the budgets of nearly every state agency. Since he took office in January, the governor cut spending nearly $400 million to balance the state budget.

House Republican Floor Leader Catherine Hanaway, R-St. Louis County, said she thought the exemption was almost sure to pass.

House Speaker Pro Tem Mark Abel, D-Festus, agreed. "I think not taxing the rebate will be pretty popular," he said.

If the federal rebate is not exempted, the most a single Missourian would pay in state taxes would be $18, and $36 for a married couple, said Carol Fischer, Director of the Missouri Revenue Department. Without the tax cut, Missouri government would get an extra $30 million in taxes, according to a spokesman for the state's budget office.

But most legislators don't seem to want the revenue from the federal tax rebate in state coffers.

"This money was meant to stabilize the economy and it would be shortsighted and foolhardy (not to pass the exemption)," said Hanaway.

In a special election for the House, both candidates in the Democratic primary used their campaigns to speak against the governor. The winner of the election, Jim Whorton, D-Trenton, criticized Holden's support for subsidizing a new stadium for the St. Louis Cardinals, giving collective bargaining rights to state employees, and raising taxes for state highways.

When asked about his campaign strategy in a telephone interview, Whorton abruptly hung up the phone.

Abel said the campaign wasn't as negative as many people claim.

"I don't think they campaigned against the governor," he said. "When asked about the positions the governor has taken, such as the collective bargaining issue and the Cardinals' new stadium, they didn't support that."

The collective bargaining issue to which Abel referred had to do with Holden's mandate that when state workers have labor issues, decisions of an arbitrator will be binding.

The Cardinals baseball team wants the state to contribute money to build a new ballpark, which it says will increase revenue that the team needs to pay its players. The stadium plan is part of a plan for revitalizing one area of downtown St. Louis.

Many legislators in St. Louis and around the state are opposed to giving money to an already wealthy team.

Abel does not support the issue because he said it's an issue on which his constituents are nearly unanimous. They feel, he said, that the Cardinals' current stadium is adequate, and helping the team pay players higher salaries is not the public's job.

While the legislature has disagreed with many of the governor's issues, the situation might not be as tense as it appears.

"The relationship between the legislature and the governor, I haven't experienced any real problems," Abel said. "I don't feel any problems, with the Democratic Caucus in the House or with the governor."