By CARL H. HENDRICKSON
For the Call
Early predictions proved correct that the 92nd General Assembly’s most difficult challenge during the legislative session would be to balance the state budget.
The 92nd General Assembly that convened Jan. 8 was unique in several respects. Veteran legislators who had served for 10, 20 and 30 years were gone.
Instead, more than half of the 163 House members were participating in the legislative process for the first time. Among the 90 new House members were the six who would represent south county.
For the first time in 48 years the Republicans held a majority in the Missouri House. In addition, they retained their majority in the Senate. Rep. Catherine Hanaway, R-Warson Woods, was elected the first female speaker of the House in Missouri’s history.
The six novice legislators who joined veteran Sen. Anita Yeckel, R-Sunset Hills, in representing the area are: Jim Avery, R-Crestwood; Walt Bivins, R-Oakville; Jim Lembke, R-Lemay; Sue Schoemehl, D-Oakville; Patricia “Pat” Yaeger, D-Lemay; and Michael Vogt, D-Affton.
Despite all the changes in the Legis-lature, south county representatives said early in the session that balancing the budget would be the most difficult challenge facing the Legislature during the session.
That prediction proved correct.
Although the Republican-led General Assembly submitted a budget to Gov. Bob Holden by the constitutional deadline, Holden, a Democrat, contended the budget was not balanced. Holden vetoed budget bills, not once, but twice. Although a $19.1 billion budget was signed to fund the new fiscal year that began July 1, Holden still claims it is $240 million short of revenue predictions and proposes to withhold a substantial amount of the shortfall from the education budgets.
But Bivins disputes the accuracy of the governor’s numbers. In a news release, Bivins contended the governor’s predictions have not proved accurate in the past. Holden had anticipated that last year’s budget would have a shortfall of $170 million when, in actuality, the number was almost one-half this amount or $89.1 million.
Lembke believes the governor was “playing politics” when he vetoed the budget bills. He stated in a news release, “As the governor was signing the budget he stated that he was not happy with our (the Republicans’) plan because it didn’t give enough to education. Then he announced he would be withholding $240 million from education next week.”
Bivins agreed. In the news release, he also noted Holden’s inconsistency by with-holding from his No. 1 priority. If Holden truly believed that the budget was not balanced, Bivins contended the governor could have used his line-item veto power to cut more bureaucrats and waste out of state government.
Avery told the Call that he believed the special session was a political move by Holden. The governor is attempting to shore up his base of support and avoid a primary challenge next year, he said.
“This special session for political purposes was not fair to lawmakers or the taxpayers of the state,” Avery said.
Although the three area Republican House members contend the special session was called for political purposes, some good did come from it. Lembke mentioned the Legislature was able to utilize money that the state will receive through President Bush’s economic stimulus package to provide additional funding for social services and education.
In discussing the merits of the regular session, Lembke told the Call that passage of the 24-hour waiting period before an abortion, performance-based budgeting, tort reform and workers’ compensation were the more important bills passed out of the House. “The general and special sessions proved that state government can operate efficiently and effectively without raising taxes,” Lembke said.
In his judgment, the long-term solution to Missouri’s financial problems is fiscal responsibility.
Along those lines, Holden has signed Senate Bill 299, co-sponsored by Yeckel, that requires the state budget director to develop and implement a performance-based budgeting system.
Avery told the Call that the tort reform and the workers’ compensation bills were two of the highlights of the session. He was disappointed that the property tax relief bill that he had sponsored did not get passed. This bill would have capped the amount of property tax that could be levied in a taxing cycle.
Bivins, a member of the House Education Committee and former member of the Mehlville Board of Education, has told the Call that he was disappointed the Legislature did not pass the bill (House Bill 288) to establish the Classroom Trust Fund.
A plus for the session, he told the Call, was the passage of the 24-hour waiting period before a woman may obtain an abortion. He and Yaeger were co-sponsors of this “informed consent” bill.
Currently, money from gaming goes into the foundation formula, which excludes such hold-harmless school districts as Lindbergh and Mehlville whose state funding is frozen at 1993 levels. Under HB 288, gaming revenue would be placed into a trust fund to be distributed to school districts on a per-pupil basis.
Schoemehl, also a member of the House Education Committee, had voted to send the Classroom Trust Fund bill to the full House for consideration. At that time she told the Call of her support because the bill “would benefit constituents in Oakville.”
Yaeger had told the Call that she supported HB 288 “because it benefits the Bayless and Affton School Districts and does not harm the Hancock School District.”
Vogt has told the Call that he expects the governor to veto the tort reform bill that was passed on the last day of session.
Senate Bill 280, the “tort reform” bill, limits the amount of damages that may be recovered in medical malpractice litigation and where a lawsuit may be filed.
Yeckel, the third-ranking senator, told the Call that she believed the special session was unnecessary given that Missouri would receive money from the federal government. She also contends that calling the body back into special session was a political move on the part of the governor.
However, Yeckel said that the regular session was extremely productive and that she had accomplished much for the citizens of Missouri. In May the governor signed into law House Bill 221 that modernizes the state’s banking system. In addition, the bill included a provision that allows the Missouri Higher Education Loan Authority to originate PLUS Loans — Parent Loans for Undergraduate Students.
Yeckel, as chair of the Senate Financial and Governmental Organization, Vet-erans’ Affairs and Elections Committee, was the Senate sponsor of the bill.