Legislative term coasts to conclusion

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

* Blunt to call special session on abortion.

By Marc Powers

Nevada Daily Mail

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- The last day of the legislative session typically is a frenzied effort to beat the clock and finish work on major bills.

Having disposed of most priority issues days -- if not weeks -- ago, however, the Missouri General Assembly spent the waning hours of its 2005 term on Friday passing minor bills and non-binding resolutions and even managed to wrap up a few minutes ahead of its constitutional adjournment deadline.

Republicans, with wide majorities in both the House and Senate, said the leisurely finish was possible because they came out of the gate in January on a mandate for change and wasted no time pursuing it.

"We covered more issues and more ground, I believe, than any other legislature in the history of the state of Missouri," said Senate President Pro Tem Michael Gibbons, R-Kirkwood. "There was clearly a fresh breeze blowing through the halls of the Missouri Capitol."

With the GOP controlling both the legislative and executive branches of Missouri government for the first time since 1921, Gov. Matt Blunt called this year's achievements historic.

"We've taken our state in a new direction," Blunt said. "We passed a budget that places school children and taxpayers first, and we've dealt with complex, complicated issues that really have not been dealt with for too long."

One issue the legislature didn't resolve, despite its overwhelming pro-life membership, was a bill to allow parents to sue if someone assists their underage daughter in getting an out-of-state abortion without parental consent. Girls must have parental permission to undergo the procedure at clinics located in Missouri but neighboring states such as Illinois have no such restrictions.

Immediately after lawmakers adjourned, Blunt announced his intention to call a special session on the issue in September. Blunt blamed leaders of Missouri Right to Life, a major anti-abortion rights group, for the measure's failure. MRL, a powerful GOP constituency, had pushed for even tougher restrictions in the bill and had attacked Blunt and other Republicans for not acquiescing.

"I think it's bizarre that a group that purports to be pro-life is working against strong pro-life legislation," Blunt said.

Senate Minority Floor Leader Maida Coleman, D-St. Louis, said it would be a waste of taxpayer money to call a special session, which generally costs about $100,000 a day, on a topic that can wait until next year.

"This cannot be the most important issue that faces the state of Missouri right now," Coleman said. "It's bowing down to the pressure of Missouri Right to Life."

While Republicans trumpeted passage of a litany of pro-business bills and deep cuts to Medicaid and other social programs to balance the $19.2 billion state operating budget, Democrats viewed those efforts as failures rather than successes.

"To me, success is not taking away health care for 100,000 Missourians," Coleman said. "Success is not passing an education plan that has no funding and won't take effect for the next seven years. Success to me is not rewarding businesses with unsafe working conditions, and success is not denying a medical malpractice victim with their day in court."

According to the Senate communications office, the legislature sent 197 bills to the governor's desk. Although a couple dozen fewer than last year's bill total, the final tally included major legislation with potentially wide-ranging impacts.

One is the first major rewrite of the states education funding formula since 1993 that aims to distribute money to local school districts based on student need. The existing formula is driven by local property tax rates and has created wide funding disparities between rich and poor districts.

The new formula would be phased in over seven years at an estimated cost of $897 million over that period. Democrats are critical of the bill as it includes no plan for coming up with the money.

Supporters say that while it would be easier to fully fund with a dedicated revenue source, natural growth in tax collections should be sufficient to cover the cost. Senate Majority Floor Leader Charlie Shields, the formula bills chief author, made an unsuccessful last-ditch effort to provide funding by lifting Missouri's unique casino loss limit.

"I don't think there is the legislative will to do anything on loss limits," said Shields, R-St. Joseph.

Included among the numerous business-friendly bills are restrictions on civil lawsuits, an overhaul of the workers compensation system and a lessening of utility industry regulation.

"Missouri is open for business," said state Chamber of Commerce and Industry president Dan Mehan.

House Minority Floor Leader Jeff Harris, D-Columbia, said Blunt's legislative priorities demonstrate whose side he's on.

"He stands for special interests; we stand for a government by and for the people," Harris said. "The people of this state are starting to see those differences, and they are demonstrating they are with us."

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