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Lawmakers approve an investigation into allegations of a Holden administration gag order

March 05, 2003
By: Sara Bondioli
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - In a party-line vote, the Joint Committee on Legislative Research voted Wednesday to hear testimony regarding executive branch directives.

The vote came in response to allegations that Natural Resources Department employees were told they could be fired for discussing the budget with legislators.

House Minority Leader Mark Abel, D-Festus, was on the committee and spoke out against the first committee motion that would have looked into possible violations of the law.

"It's nothing illegal and now to even say that laws have been broken is ridiculous," Abel said

That motion was amended to hear testimony on whether there was a directive in the executive branch to withhold or limit employee communication with the legislature.

Steve Mahfood, director of the Natural Resources Department, said he has volunteered to testify. His employees may make the personal decision of whether they will testify as well.

Mahfood said his department's budget recommendations were sent to the governor and included in the governor's budget plan. However, he added that his employees who see items not communicated should contact legislators.

Abel said department employees should promote the governor's plan.

"They work for the governor to reflect his priorities not their own personal ones," he said.

Now that the governor has submitted his plan, with help from his departments, it is the House's job to come up with its own plan based on its own priorities, Abel said.

"We're not asking them to deviate from the governor's policies," said House Speaker Catherine Hanaway, R-St. Louis County. "We're asking them to state the governor's policies more thoroughly."

Hanaway said the House is asking for a "rank order" of programs in each department.

"The vast majority of programs are ranked as the No. 1 priority," she said. "They can't all be No. 1."

Hanaway said she would like departments to answer one question.

"The simple question is, if you were to cut the budget, where would you cut," she said.

The governor's office said the governor cannot further prioritize cuts.

"We're to the point where the governor and the director have said they can't sustain additional cuts," said Mary Still, the governor's director of communications.

Budget Director Carl Bearden, R-St. Charles, said in the committee that he has not had cooperation from some departments when asking directors to prioritize their core programs.

Bearden received no response from many of those departments, he said, "other than saying things like they were all important."

The discussion began when a note, written by Natural Resources Department employee Keenen Patterson at a staff meeting, stated that discussion of the budget with legislators is a firing offense for department employees.