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Holden at odds with some leading Democrats

February 28, 2002
By: Robert Sandler
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - A month into his second legislative session as governor, Bob Holden is facing increasing criticism from the legislature, and seems to be at a crossroads with his party.

Holden, a Democrat, has watched as several of his proposals were criticized this week largely by Democratic legislators. The legislators are lukewarm on some issues the governor wants passed, and the governor is threatening to veto some measures they send him.

One of the governor's major priorities for the past two years has been a package for a new baseball stadium in St. Louis that he says will spur economic development there. But at this week's major announcement of a deal for the stadium, Democratic leaders in the legislature were conspicuously absent.

House Speaker Jim Kreider, D-Nixa, says the ballpark is not a priority for him, but right now he will not block it from coming to a vote.

Asked if his opposition didn't mean that the stadium bill wouldn't come to a vote, he replied, "No, it doesn't mean that at this time."

Kreider emphasized where his priorities are and where the stadium bill falls into place.

"We've got to fund education. We've got to keep our safety nets in place, like prescription drugs for seniors. And then we're going to address an economic stimulus package."

Holden is also expected to face an unpopular battle on allowing Missourians to carry concealed weapons. The issue was narrowly defeated in a referendum in 1999, but a bipartisan group of lawmakers are pushing it forward again -- only this time it would not go to the people.

Kreider is one of concealed weapons' biggest proponents. With some Democrats now supporting the issue, it seems destined to get to the governor's desk. But Holden's spokesman says the governor will veto the bill if it gets to him.

Holden took office just as state revenue falling and state expenditures rising. When tax revenues began to fall, he had to cut spending, starting just a few months into his term. Last year, Holden vetoed or withheld $720 million, as well as another $500 million this year.

This year, the state will collect less general revenue than it did last year, for the first time on record. To cover some of the gaps in revenue, Holden has proposed using $130 million from the state's Rainy Day Fund and parts of other state reserve funds.

The reserve funds are haunted by the question of who must authorize their use -- the governor or the legislature. Even while Holden is pushing them, a House committee voted down use of the reserve funds to plug the budget. Kreider said he hopes to reinstate tapping the reserve funds when the bill gets back to the full House.

Most legislators say they are hesitant to use any of the state's reserves. The governor's proposed budget includes major cuts in higher education, health care and social services.

That has led the House Appropriations for General Administration Committee to suggest cutting office staff for most state offices. Offices of legislators, the governor and most statewide officials would be affected.

Jerry Nachtigal, Holden's spokesman, said cutting staff in the governor's office would be disastrous.

"This clearly is led by a representative who doesn't really understand how a governor's office works," Nachtigal said.

Rep. Dennis Bonner, D-Independence, the chairman of the committee, agreed, but for a different reason.

"I think with all the mistakes that Gov. Holden has made over the last 14 months, a lot of us don't understand how the governor's office operates," Bonner said.

Two of the governor's plans for dealing with the budget shortfall have been rejected by Democratic-controlled committees.

The House Budget Committee rejected sweeping funds in accounts that are dedicated for specific purposes.

The House Miscellaneous Bills Committee rejected the governor's proposal to eliminate the loss limit on casinos. Opponents argue it violates the agreement the state made with voters when they originally approved riverboat gaming.

Kreider said there is a serious split among House Democrats on whether to use those means to increase state revenue.

Holden even faced criticism from his lieutenant governor for cutting the budget for the tourism department.

Lt. Gov. Joe Maxwell, also a Democrat, said earlier this month he thinks during this recession is not the time to be cutting the tourism budget.

The governor's spokesman dismissed differences with Maxwell as small and infrequent.

"If they disagree on some issues, there's no problem with that," Nachtigal said.

Besides the major policy issues, Holden has even faced trouble with appointments he has made. A nominee to a state labor commission was turned down by the Senate in what many senators said was partisan bickering.

Holden has also faced strong criticism for his appointments to the St. Louis election board. He disregarded the suggestions of the Republican Party when naming a Republican member to the board. A recent nominee to the St. Louis Police Board was forced to resign soon after Holden appointed him late last year.

With all these problems under his belt, Holden has taken new advisors into his office. Lee Kling, a former state highway commissioner, and Mark Abels, longtime spokesman for Trans World Airlines, are offering advice to the governor when he needs it. Nachtigal, the governor's spokesman, said Holden speaks with Kling and Abels when he wants to, and gets help from his advisors on plotting strategy.

Nachtigal said the governor is still a legitimate leader in his party.

"The governor and members of his party in the legislature agree on many more issues than they disagree," Nachtigal said.

The rest of the legislative session may determine if the governor still has enough friends in the legislature to enact what he wants. In last year's session, the governor faced similar questions, just on different issues.

Some lawmakers said at the time they thought last year's session proved Holden didn't have the power to govern. This session seems to beg the same question.