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Legislative Session Concludes

May 17, 1997
By: Joel Kirkland
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - After the General Assembly failed to pass welfare reform, tax breaks for college costs and a health insurance program for children by their 6 pm Friday deadline, Gov. Mel Carnahan charged Missouri citizens were the "victims of personal agendas" during this year's regular legislative session.

Although the governor praised lawmakers for passing a $250 million tax-cut package and HMO regulation, he expressed disappointment at the level of political bickering that killed several of his key proposals.

The tax package that lawmakers approved eliminates a 3-cent sales tax on groceries and cuts taxes on private pensions.

Tax cuts were made possible by a booming state economy that has driven state revenue collections well above the "Hancock" constitutional revenue limit. That limit restricts the total amount of revenue state government can retain.

The tax-cut package the legislature approved will reduce revenue collections by $255.4 by 1999. By year 2003, the administration estimates $332.5 million in taxes will not be collected.

"The success or failure of the session depended on passage of the food sales tax cut," Carnahan said. In almost the same breath, however, the governor said Republicans "stooped to a new low," when they blocked key pieces of his agenda.

Carnahan blamed Republicans for killing a bill that would have guaranteed health care to nearly 175,000 children that currently are uninsured.

Although the final version of the bill passed in the House Friday, it was killed in the Senate by a Republican filibuster by two senators who objected to creation of a non-profit organization to provide health insurance for children.

Sen. Peter Kinder, R-Cape Girardeau, charged the bill was part of a national conspiracy to establish health clinics at public schools. "They want to talk about invasive, physical exams including unclothed genital exams that occurred after this bill was passed in the state of Pennsylvania," Kinder said shortly after his filibuster that ended the Senate session.

Also dying on the legislature's last day was legislation designed to soften the impact of federal welfare reform.

Although the proposal had passed the Senate by a strong bi-partisan vote, Republicans in the House charged the proposal was too liberal.

Only thirty minutes after the session's end, legislators were forced back into "special session" because they had not completed next year's budget.

The governor called the special session after the budget was held up by legislators who oppose giving $7 million to Planned Parenthood -- an organization that uses some state money to fund abortions.

"Rhetoric has solidified and people really don't care about the consequences," Carnahan said of the family-planning opponents.

Like some past sessions, lawmakers had put off until the last day final votes on many of the key issues of the 1997 session.

For nearly half the day, the Senate was bogged down by a filibuster against the House's tax-cut package. The package did not include a $2,500 tax deduction for high school costs -- parochial schools included.

Carnahan had threatened a veto of any measure that included tax breaks for private and parochial schools, calling it a clear violation of church and state separation.

Senators filibustering the package, already passed in the House, argued that state money for church-run schools does not violate the constitution.

The filibuster's leader, Sen. John Schneider, D-St. Louis, protested that the House leadership had not allowed that chamber to vote on the issue. Suddenly, without explanation, Schneider ended his filibuster in late afternoon and allowed a final vote on the bill.

A week earlier, the Roman Catholic senator had accused the governor of religious bigotry for opposing the tax break.

As the hour of recess drew closer, Sen. Ken Jacob, D-Columbia, took the floor to challenge the filibuster.

"Why is this little tax cut so important that everything in the whole building is being shut down?" Jacob yelled across the Senate floor. "Why is your agenda more important than mine, and everyone else's in here?"

With the tax cut plan dominating the agenda over the past week, rhetoric surrounding church-state issues created tension.

In a news conference Friday evening, Carnahan called the state House rhetoric a "religious war." The governor said he may discuss the issue with religious leaders, but is yet to arrange the details.

"I was called everything in the book on the (House-Senate) floors," Carnahan said. "I would suggest that's a war."

Carnahan also lashed out at the Senate's refusal to include the "Challenge Scholarship" tax deduction for higher education in the tax bill because of refusal by the House to accept the high-school tax deduction.

Carnahan called that tactic "a terrorist procedure that I don't expect from the majority."

Despite the governor's criticisms, legislative leader's described themselves as generally pleased with the overall production from the five-month session.

"I certainly don't have any trouble holding my head high," said Senate President Pro Tem Bill McKenna, D-Jefferson County, at a Friday night news conference of legislative leaders. "I think we did a good job...I'm not ashamed of anything."

In addition to the tax bill, other issues that reached the governor's desk include:

* A sweeping package of regulations for managed health care plans.

* Provisions, required by the federal government, to strengthen child-support collection efforts by the state.

* Witness immunity that allows prosecutors to grant immunity to witnesses in return for essential testimony in a criminal case.

* A package of tax breaks for economic development.

Finally, lawmakers took care of their own needs Friday before they took up issues like tax cuts or welfare reform.

The legislature passed a resolution that take over the entire state Capitol building -- except for the governor and lieutenant governor's offices.

The measure was passed by voice vote in the House on Friday morning. State law gives the legislature power to seize space in the building. The governor has no veto power over the matter.

Displaced from the four-story building under the resolution will be the state auditor, secretary of state, state treasurer and the state budget officed.