JEFFERSON CITY - Missouri's 90th General Assembly wasn't sworn in before partisan tensions began to flare. House Republican Leader Delbert Scott, R-Lowry City, said that Gov. Mel Carnahan's decision to challenge U.S. Sen. John Ashcroft in 2000 might affect the legislative agenda.
"The governor's candidacy is going to have a big impact, considering he announced so early," Scott said at a Wednesday morning news conference of House GOP leaders. "It's definitely going to affect the legislative discussion."
Scott also said that the Carnahan administration deliberately has underestimated state revenues, forcing the state to give a tax rebate under the Hancock Amendment limiting state revenues. The purpose, Scott said, is to ensure that tax relief is as small as possible and that Democrats can propose new tax cuts year after year.
"That's an absolutely ludicrous charge," said Carnahan Spokesman Chris Sifford. According to Sifford, Missouri's strong economy has been pushing revenues up beyond expectations. "We don't feel any need to apologize for a strong economy," he said.
The governor will lay out his agenda in his annual State of the State address on January 20th. Unlike his past six years as governor, Carnahan has given absolutely no clues as to what he will propose to Missouri lawmakers.
Tax cuts are a major part of the Republican agenda. They're proposing cuts totalling $330 million dollars -- including repeal of the sales tax on restaurant food, a proposal to allow 10 percent of property tax to be deducted from income tax, and raising the dependency deduction from $1200 to $2000.
The magnitude of the Republican package raised words of caution from several Democrats. "Proposals and realities are a long way apart," said Sen. Ed Quick, D-Liberty and the Senate's new president pro tem.
House Speaker Steve Gaw, D-Moberly, did propose a tax credit for pharmaceuticals. "It would be a great help to elderly Missourians," he said.
One of the uncertainties in the tax-cut debate is the anticipated windfall from the state's tobacco settlement. The attorney general's office estimates Missouri will collect $6.7 billion within the first 20 years from the tobacco companies.
Several legislators, both Republican and Democrat, say that money is covered by the state's "Hancock Lid" that requires excess government revenues be refunded to the taxpayers.
"We can't wait for the courts to set the agenda on this issue," Scott said. House Republicans contend that tobacco money counts towards the Hancock Amendment, and that any money the state does retain should be limited to smoking prevention and the treatment of tobacco-related illnesses.
Democratic leaders say it's too early to make decisions about the tobacco settlement. "First of all, we haven't seen a dime of the tobacco revenue yet," Gaw said.
Other issues facing legislators include highway funding and a renewed debate over a ban on partial-birth abortions. One issue legislators say they don't want to revisit is the St. Louis desegregation settlement. If negotiations in the St. Louis case fail, the last session's contentious desegregation bill will be worthless.
"I don't think they should come back here and try to work out a new deal," Gaw said. "We had a number of out-state members who were viciously criticized for their support," he said.
Rep. Tim Harlan, D-Columbia, expressed hope for bipartisanship in a modification of his small-business health insurance plan that failed in the last session. "We've been working with insurance companies, and are surprised at how responsive they've been," Harlan said.
Harlan said that many small businesses have a very difficult time acquiring health coverage for their employees. He cited hair dressers, realtors, and farmers as groups that are having difficulty finding insurance. "Any solution that leaves these people out is not acceptable," Gaw said.
Rep. Vicky Riback-Wilson, D-Columbia, cited term limits as a cause for the growing perception of partisanship.
"Term limits ensure that people have less time to become leaders, and less time to make their mark. Not only do we have more partisanship, but we also have more conflict within parties," she said.