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Rifts emerged among Republican leadership on final day of session

May 13, 2006
By: Meghan Maskery
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - Emerging rifts that divided Republicans this legislative session kept some of Gov. Matt Blunt's initiatives from moving forward all the way up to the final minutes of the last day.

The Republican governor blamed the Republican-controlled House for killing his college loan sale plan while the top House leader questioned the governor's absence from the statehouse in the closing hours of the legislative session.

While the governor was gone, the House leadership refused to even consider one of the governor's top agenda items.

It was a bill that included provisions to crack down on Medicaid fraud, to establish a fund for computerized medical records, and to put thousands of people back into the Medicaid program. Some of those initiatives had been backed by Blunt.

But House leaders refused to take it up.

"We had a very busy day," Rep. Carl Bearden, the Speaker Pro Tem of the House.

After the 6 p.m. end of the session deadline hit, the Senate Majority Floor Leader, Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph, read a statement into the Senate record. He said the House refused to consider the bill despite five requests by the Senate that they do so.

"Those tensions, particularly in the last week of the session, are always there," said Bearden, R-St. Charles.

Senate leadership said in their after-session press conference, that the challenges arose because the issues handled this session, such as a proposal to take proceeds from a college loan sale, were new to legislators, whereas last year, the Republican majority passed proposals on issues they had already formed positions on.

Yet members of the House leadership and the governor continue to disagree on Blunt's plan to use proceeds from a sale of assets by the Missouri Higher Education Loan Authority five months after it was first proposed.

Last week, the House refused to allow a bill containing a spending proposal for profits from a sale of college loans by the state's college loan agency, MOHELA, to move to the Senate for consideration.

Members of the House leadership said they would send the bill once the Senate approved another bill that could potentially cut into the operating budgets of public universities to provide funds for college scholarship programs.

The Senate did not approve the scholarship funding bill and the spending plan for the proceeds died, in what Blunt called his biggest disappointment of the session.

Blunt proposed the plan in January to use proceeds from a college loan sale on building construction, college scholarships, endowments for professorships, and on enticements to move businesses closer to campuses.

At a Friday press conference, Bearden publicly disputed Blunt's understanding of the legality of his latest proposal to give the proceeds from a MOHELA sale directly to the projects without legislative approval.

"Again, I think, MOHELA has significant legal boundaries or hold-backs, they're going to have to come through in order to make that happen because should they try to do that, I think they will be challenged by a number of different groups," Bearden said.

House Speaker, Rod Jetton, R-Marble Hill, also expressed disapproval of Blunt's latest plan in an earlier press conference.

"I would be very concerned of any governor who would try to go out and spend $450 million without the legislature's input," Jetton said.

Blunt left his office early on Friday, about six hours before the legislative session officially ended. After a ceremony in Columbia, his staff originally they did not know where the governor would be in last hours of the legislative session. Later, a spokesperson said he would be at his Springfield home.

Before he left, Blunt began his closing statement by addressing the disagreements that occurred.

"First let me say, as we've gone through this legislative session there have certainly been times where there's been disagreement between the House and the Senate and myself, but Pro Tem [Michael] Gibbons, Speaker [Rod] Jetton and I agree with complete conviction that we're truly moving our state forward, Blunt said."

Early in the session, Blunt called for increased usage of ethanol blended gasoline, strengthened sex offender laws and eminent domain protections. All three initiatives passed and Bearden said these bills were priority in the House.

But many initiates put forward by Blunt went nowhere.

In November, Blunt called on legislators to support a plan to mandate that 65 percent of state funds going to public schools be only used on classroom instruction. Bills filed both in the House and the Senate to adopt a two-thirds mandate never made it to the legislature for consideration.

"I think it is a statement there are many that like the status quo," Blunt said in response to a reporter's question about whether the death of the bill was a statement of the legislature's dislike for the idea.

The governor also supported proposals to reduce Medicaid fraud and to strengthen dam regulations, but then he left the Capitol as those issues were pending before the House.

In his absence, neither bill was taken up by the lower chamber.

Recommendations from the governor's task force on government reorganization made little headway with the legislature.

House Minority Leader, Rep. Jeff Harris, D-Columbia. pointed to the failures of the school funding proposal and the MOHELA plan as indicative of Republicans trying to distance themselves from Blunt.

"I think you see buyer's remorse on the part of Republicans in the legislature who are regretting now, in an election year, that they rubber-stamped this governor's agenda," said Harris in a press conference.

Earlier in the day he said, "It looks to me like everybody on the Republican side is trying to distance themselves from this governor, but you know what - you can run, but you can't hide."

Rep. Judy Baker, D-Columbia, said the disputes among Republican leadership led to inaction this session.

"There was a lot of infighting and I think that slowed everything down, Baker said. "There was a lot of internal struggle over priorities and solutions or non-solutions."

Rep. Ed Robb, R-Columbia, disagreed that rifts among the leadership in this legislative session were unusual at all. "Obviously there's always going to be differences of opinion between the House and the Senate and the governor on most issues," Robb said.

"It's usually not a major philosophical difference. It gets down into the details about how you implement some philosophical idea you have that affects the state of Missouri."