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Session Preview

December 11, 1997
By: Margaret Murphy
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - A booming economy and the courts have handed the Missouri General Assembly a full agenda for the 1998 session of Missouri's legislature that begins January 7.

It's a robust economy that has handed lawmakers an opportunity to pass another tax cut. The courts have given lawmakers some issues that could be a lot more difficult to resolve covering issues such as school desegregation and riverboat gambling.

Below are highlights of some of the major issues the legislators will consider when they return to Jefferson City:

* Tax Cuts/Tax Relief: Despite the cut in sales tax on groceries that lawmakers passed in their last legislative session, the administration predicts the state still will be collecting too much money.

The Budget Division has predicted tax collections will exceed the Hancock revenue limit by $100 million in the fiscal year that begins July 1, 1998.

Legislative leaders have proposed refunding the money by passing an income tax break for property-tax payers.

But several lawmakers have been pushing for a tax relief for parents who send their children to private and parochial schools.

* Riverboat Gambling: The state supreme court ruled in November that casinos operating on land, but surrounded by a man-made water basin are violating the state's constitution. At issue is exactly which casinos these are, and whether they'll be allowed to continue operating.

At least two casinos -- one in Kansas City and one in St. Louis are floating in the kind of moats the court outlawed.

The Senate's president pro tem, Bill McKenna, has said that he will consider introducing legislation to "grandfather" existing gambling boats if needed to avoid shutting them down.

But the first word on the state high court's decision will come from the state Gaming Commission and the Cole County Circuit Court which is charged with implementing the Supreme Court's decision.

* School Desegregation: Missouri lawmakers will be asked to approve one of the biggest changes in Missouri's school system in decades -- to give the mayor of St. Louis temporary power over city schools.

That recommendation comes from a legislative panel looking for a way to resolve the St. Louis and Kansas City school desegregation cases in federal court.

Missouri has spent $3 billion in the last two decades complying with court-ordered desegregation, more than any other state in the union.

In a move that was seen as a vote of no confidence by members, the panel agreed in November to give St. Louis Mayor Clarence Harmon the authority to essentially gut the St. Louis public school board and replace it with members he chooses.

The panel also proposed an additional $1,000 per year per student for students in urban areas.

But some rural lawmakers argue giving extra funds to city schools would be unfair to students in rural districts.

* Highway Funding: A task force appointed by the governor had recommended a statewide ballot proposal to raise the state sales tax to accelerate highway construction. But the idea ran into immediate opposition from legislative leaders, who have declared the idea dead for the 1997 session.

Instead, legislative leaders say they will push for legislation to make the Transportation Department more accountable to the legislature and to give the legislature a stronger voice over how highway construction funds are spent.

* Drugs: Calling Missouri a "meth mecca," Missouri's governor made methamphetamine production the first issue he highlighted for thee 1998 legislative session.

A number of proposals to toughen penalties and enforcement provisions have been proposed since the governor sponsored a day-long conference of law enforcement officials.

* Term Limits: For the first time since Missouri voters approved limiting the terms of legislators, the General Assembly will feel the effects of that constitutional amendment.

The amendment will make the Senate's top lawmaker, Senate President Pro Tem Bill McKenna, a lame-duck legislator.

Because the Barnhart Democrat had started his Senate service by filling an unexpired term, he is the first lawmaker forced out of office by the term limit that prohibits him from running for re-election in 1998.

* Abortion: The senator whose vote last fall effectively upheld the governor's veto of a ban on partial birth abortions has introduced a new bill to outlaw the procedure.

The senator is Sen. Betty Sims, R-St. Louis County, the only Republican to support the governor's veto. Supporters of the ban said it was her vote that doomed the override effort.

Sims said the bill was poorly worded and had promised to come back in 1998 with a more tightly worded proposal.