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Politics and Budgets Dominate Attention

January 06, 2004
By: Christie Smythe
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - As legislators trickled into their offices to prepare for Wednesday's start of the 2004 session, they came in dragging behind them last year's biggest challenge -- the budget.

Republicans cite education funding, transportation being among the biggest issues to be faced by legislators during this session. Democrats say, however, that their highest priority will be riding out an even greater budget crisis than last year.

Both Republican and Democratic lawmakers anticipate a shortage of revenue -- with projections of funding gaps ranging to as high as $1 billion dollars. Republicans are continuing to stand firmly against tax increases while Democrats voice worries that not enough funding will be available to meet the needs of Missouri residents.

Also complicating the session are upcoming elections in November.

Already announced are House Speaker Catherine Hanaway's run for Secretary of State, and State Auditor Claire McCaskill's challenge of Gov. Bob Holden for the Democratic nomination for governor. Secretary of State Matt Blunt, a Republican, is also expected to announce his candidacy for the governorship.

Elections are also adding to the heightened sense of partisanship in the Senate, according to Sen. Wayne Goode, D-St. Louis.

In an unusual situation, the top party leaders in Missouri's Senate are seeking the same statewide office. Both Republican Senate Pro Tem Peter Kinder and Democratic Floor Leader Ken Jacob are running to replace Lt. Gov. Joe Maxwell.

Although Republican lawmakers said they will try to find a way to grapple with the budget without raising taxes, damage education may be inevitable, said Sen. Pat Dougherty, D-St. Louis City.

"You can't ignore the fact that education needs a pretty good infusion of dollars, and you don't a good infusion of dollars by wishing for it to occur," Dougherty said.

Meanwhile, Republican leaders say they will toss back on the governor's desk the very same issues he had vetoed last year -- bills to curb the amount of damages awarded in damage lawsuits, impose tighter restrictions in workers' compensation coverage and changes in child abuse protections.

Last year's child abuse measure came after a state audit found so many problems with its record-keeping that auditors could neither determine the total number and location of foster children nor the average case load for each social worker.

Provisions requiring better record-keeping for the program, including the fingerprinting and background checking of perspective foster parents are contained in two Senate bills.

Republicans also have touted an economic stimulus package.

House Majority Floor Leader Jason Crowell, R-Cape Girardeu, said concern for encouraging job growth will add to this year's support for the legislation.

"I think a pro-jobs agenda and the budget have historically, and will continue to dominate the legislative session," he said.

While Republicans appear firm in opposition to raising taxes -- not so for tolls.

In both the House and Senate, GOP members have filed toll road proposals.

"I think we need to have the discussions, whether it's successful or not I don't know," said one of the Senate bill's sponsor -- Sen. Delbert Scott, R-Lowry City.

When asked about the possible opposition the bill might face, he said: "I think we're just going to have to put it out there and see what happen."

A similar bill was also filed in the House by Rep. Jeff Harris, D-Columbia.

The legislature will also address two bills that would increase the rights of mobile home park residents -- including one sponsored by Rep. Vicky Riback Wilson, D-Columbia, 120 days' notice before residents of mobile home parks would have to leave their homes, in the event that the land would be used for another purpose.

Wilson said she has sponsored the legislation, which mirrors a Columbia city ordinance, a number of years in the past.

While election years do tend to mean more spending, several Republican legislators said they don't expect that the more politically charged environment of upcoming elections will unduly complicate the session the session.

"There will be more noise, but that normally brings new ideas and new challenges," he said.

Even with the budget looking bleak, Scott said overall the session "can't be worse than last year."

Dougherty's assessment was less optimistic, as he said he anticipated that the session would not be terribly productive.

"I guess my hope is maybe if we get beyond the rhetoric we can get legislation that doesn't hurt people very much," he said.