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Legislators grappling with state budget during special session


For the Call

Legislators are addressing the state budget during a special session this week in Jefferson City.

The first three days of the special session, which began Monday, were devoted to technical matters and only those legislators who serve on budget committees had to be in Jefferson City. Today — June 5 — all legislators are in the capital to consider action resulting from the technical sessions.

After vetoing four bills that fund the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, the Department of Higher Education, the Department of Social Services and the Departments of Mental Health and Health and Senior Services, Gov. Bob Holden is proposing that voters again have the opportunity to vote on a tobacco tax increase.

The budget sent to him by the General Assembly is $367 million in the red, Holden contends. But Republicans contend the budget is balanced, noting it cuts $354 million from Holden's spending recommendations for public education, health and social services.

The Democratic Party and its allies are running television and ra-dio advertisements in the hope of pressuring legislators to support tax increases.

However, Republicans are opposed to tax increases.

Rep. Patricia "Pat" Yaeger, D-Lemay, told the Call last week that she was aware of these ads, but had not received any calls from constituents.

"I anticipate that the ads are being directed at putting pressure on the Republican majority,'' she said.

Senate Pro Tem Peter Kinder, R-Cape Girardeau, the leader of the Missouri Sen-ate, stated in a press release, "We are not going to punish the citizens of this state with massive tax increases they clearly don't want and have previously voted down."

Rep. Jim Lembke, R-Lemay, echoed the same sentiments.

"I have heard from constituents and they do not want their taxes increased," Lemb-ke said, adding he believes the special session is a waste of taxpayer money.

"The budget that was passed by the General Assembly was only 2 percent less than the governor's recommendation," he told the Call.

Under the General Assembly's budget, the Lindbergh and Mehlville school districts will not lose one dime of state funding, Lembke noted. The amount of general revenue to fund social services also is increased, he said.

"All the Legislature has done with the budget is to act fiscally responsible. Dur-ing tough economic times, bureaucrats should tighten their fiscal belts," Lembke added.

In a news release, Rep. Walt Bivins, R-Oakville, stated, "As to Gov. Holden's request for the Legislature to raise taxes — it's not going to happen. We certainly don't need a negative economical stimulus when Missouri leads the nation in lost jobs.

"In an effort to live within the revenue estimates available to the state for the next fiscal year, hard choices had to be made," Bivins' release continued. "It was the feeling among the majority of the Legislature that the people had spoken when they turned down proposed tax increases just seven months ago."

Yaeger said she hopes the two political parties will be able to overcome their differences and work for the welfare of the people.

"The tax bill signed by President Bush is expected to provide additional money to Missouri that will considerably reduce the projected revenue shortfall,'' she said.

Kinder agreed, noting in his press release that the most recent development — the influx of nearly $400 million in additional revenue from the president's economic stimulus package — covers even the latest expanded shortfall estimates claimed by the Holden Administra-tion.

Sen. Anita Yeckel, R-Sunset Hills, told the Call last week that she agrees with Kinder that the $400 million will be a one-time fix for Missouri's current budget problems and is surprised that the governor is calling the special session.

However, she said, "We are going to do all that is possible to reduce the cost of the special session by having only essential people come to the capital."

The Senate, like the House, planned to conduct technical sessions during the first three days of the special session.

Only legislators serving on budget committees were required to attend meetings until today when all legislators will meet in Jefferson City to vote.

Rep. Michael Vogt, D-Affton, is more cautious.

"I personally do not believe it is prudent to pass a budget based on expectations until the money is in the bank," he said, noting that until more specifics are known, including the amount of funds and when they would be available, he is reluctant to incorporate the proposed federal money into the state budget.

Rep. Jim Avery, R-Crestwood, told the Call that he believes the governor is just playing a political game.

"The difference between his proposals and the General Assembly budget is less than 2 percent. Even Democratic Sen. Goode (Wayne Goode, D-St. Louis) has said that a special session is not necessary,'' he said.

Avery does not expect the special session to last long in view of the fact that money soon will come to Missouri from the federal government.

Kinder also agrees that the special session is a political move by the governor. In his press release, he said that the special session is an attempt to muster support for Holden's unprecedented vetoes of parts of the budget and to shore up his weak public approval ratings.

But Rep. Sue Schoemehl, D-Oakville, says that the budget is not balanced and necessary steps must be taken to balance it.

"I hope that Missourians have a wonderful and safe summer and that each of us would consider spending our vacation money within the state to help with the revenue shortfall,'' Schoemehl told the Call last week, noting that she did not have any idea how long the special session would last.

Vogt believes that the special session will not be prolonged.

"The first three days of the technical session will give the House and Senate leadership and the governor's office an opportunity to reach a compromise, if one is possible. When the full body goes into session on Thursday, we should know the result of the negotiations,'' he said last week.

Vogt said that the key element is the Senate because the position of House Re-publicans is quite clear, as is the governor's position.

The outcome will be determined by whether the Senate goes along with House Speaker Catherine Hanaway, R-Warson Woods, or moves toward the governor's position, according to Vogt.

Yeckel believes the Senate will side with the House.

"I don't expect any major changes to be made during the special session. People do not support a tax increase,'' the senator said.

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