JEFFERSON CITY - Confronting a prison population that has grown by more than a third in the past three years, Gov. Mel Carnahan proposed building two new maximum security prisons in his State of the State address Wednesday (Jan. 22).
The $146.4 million construction of two new facilities plus increases in the number of beds at two prisons already under construction in Bonne Terre and Vandalia would provide about 4,000 additional spaces in Missouri prisons by 2000.
Carnahan said that while the prison system is not in crisis, it was time to take a close look at the situation.
"We are keeping violent criminals and dangerous criminals in longer," Carnahan said. "This was a situation I was aware of but that has become more serious more quickly than we anticipated."
Currently there are 20,000 prisoners in Missouri, and the number is expected to increase to 33,000 by the time the new prisons are completed.
Other than the proposal for new prisons, there were few other surprises in the governor's package.
As he had announced months ago, Carnahan called on lawmakers to eliminate the three percent state sales tax on food. The money cannot constitutionally be spent because of the Hancock Amendment.
"I want to see that money back in the pockets of working families," Carnahan said. "I urge you in a great bipartisan push to send this $230 million permanent tax decrease to my desk for signature."
The governor also emphasized family issues including child care, literacy, school safety and computer technology.
Carnahan said there are 48,000 fewer people on welfare now than when he took office. Much the savings derived from the reduced numbers will go toward increased funding for day care. Carnahan also proposed establishing better paternity verification procedures and giving authorities information about whether those who owe child support are meeting their obligations.
Carnahan did not address the issue of managed health care in his speech, despite a recently proposed package of reforms to the system made by members of the legislature.
"I think managed health care has been a success, but I have not signed off on the entire package," Carnahan said at a press conference after his speech. "I think some of the measures may go too far."
The House co-chair of the legislature's managed care committee, Rep. Tim Harlan, D-Columbia, said he had not expected the governor to mention the managed health care.
"I was neither surprised nor concerned by the governor's reaction," Harlan said. "This has been primarily a legislative effort and the governor will be part of the educational process."
Harlan said that despite opposition by big business and insurance companies, the governor should realize the proposal has a great deal of bipartisan support.
Both House and Senate Republicans said they did not find a lot to disagree with in the governor's speech.
"I think this was somewhere in between a Republican and Democratic speech," said Steve Ehlmann, R-St. Charles. "There will be some disagreement in the details, but I think generally you will not see a lot of criticism."
House Minority Leader Mark Richardson, R-Poplar Bluff, said while he supports the tax elimination proposal, he would prefer to see additional tax cuts with the package. He did not rule out linking other tax cuts to the governor's proposal.