Lawmakers In New Mexico, Missouri And Vermont Call It Quits
By Clare Nolan, Senior Writer
In New Mexico, Missouri and Vermont, lawmakers scrambled last week to complete last-minute haggling over end-of-session tax and budget measures. Each of these legislatures has now adjourned, bringing to 24 the number of state lawmaking bodies which have completed work for 1999.
New Mexico legislators meeting in special session sent Republican Gov. Gary Johnson a third budget proposal and he signed this one. Johnson had vetoed two previous budgets sent to him by the Democratic-controlled legislature during the regular session, demanding that lawmakers also pass a school voucher plan.
Vermont legislators had planned to adjourn the week before last but negotiations over the budget and tax cuts kept them from quitting until Saturday evening. The session culminated with approval of a $54 million tax cut, the biggest in state history. Nearly half of it will be used to provide property tax relief. Lawmakers postponed until next year a decision on whether Vermont will join the national Powerball lottery.
Missouri lawmakers hoped to salvage a relatively nonproductive and what some have called lackluster session, marked by bitter debates over abortion. But a tax cut worth about $200 Million was one of the few major accomplishments of the session. Lawmakers were unable to agree on how to spend Missouri's share of the tobacco settlement, so a proposed allotment bill died.
The New Mexico Legislature ended its regular session in March, but soon afterward Johnson announced he would veto the proposed $3.3 billion budget and force legislators to return.
During the regular session, Democratic lawmakers in control of the House and Senate had refused to vote on his request for a voucher program under which public school students could use state funds to attend private or parochial schools.
Few lawmakers had changed their minds when they returned to the capital May 4. Both the Senate and House rejected vouchers by wide margins 29-11 in the Senate, 50-20 in the House.
Johnson tried to claim a moral victory, saying he was pleased the issue had made it to floor debates in both chambers for the first time. "We've had our base camp burned today with the defeat of vouchers, but you know we're going to redouble and we're going to make another few summit attempts if that is what it takes," the Governor told the Santa Fe New Mexican after the votes.
The next day, lawmakers sent Johnson an operating budget. This time, Johnson signed the $3.3 billion budget. Lawmakers acquiesced to the governor's request for more funding for prisons and Medicaid, but they retained an increase in public school and higher education funding of $116.7 million, which Johnson called too large. The governor used his line item veto to cut $21 million from the bill, half of it from education programs.
"We gave him two budgets and the difference between what he wanted and what was in those budgets was less than one percent," said David Roybal, spokesperson for Senate President Pro Tem Manny Aragon. "He was intent on getting a vote on his voucher proposal."
New Mexico legislators said they would not leave Santa Fe until Johnson actually signed the budget bill, which he was did by the deadline of by 5:07 PM mountain time Thursday.
Roybal said each day of the special session had cost New Mexico taxpayers $49,000.
Specifics of tax cuts consumed the Missouri Legislature in its final days. However, the issue was tempered somewhat by a provision of the state Constitution. Any revenue surplus above a formula stipulated by the state's Hancock Amendment is automatically refunded to taxpayers.
Democratic Gov. Mel Carnahan, a prospective candidate for the U.S. Senate next year, had asked the legislature to enact a permanent tax cut to cut revenue collections and make unnecessary future refunds under Hancock.
Thursday, Senate and House conferees were debating the specifics of the cut. At its core are two proposals: a $900 increase in the personal exemption for income taxpayers and a 20 percent cut in the franchise tax on business assets. The original Senate bill, however, had included a multitude of amendments that raised the cost well over the $200 million projected revenue surplus.
Carnahan vowed to veto any tax cut over $200 million, saying he would call legislators back to a special session to try again.
In the final hours, legislators were also trying to hash out an omnibus crime bill and a pension bill, a completed version of which Carnahan on Wednesday promised to veto.
Last week, Missouri's lawmakers completed work on a $16.8 billion state budget. The bill boosts state education spending by 14 percent and establishes a Missouri College Guarantee Program with $11.7 million in casino revenues and general funds. Successful students from low-income families will be eligible for grants of up to $4,400 for tuition, fees and books.
The budget also bars Planned Parenthood from applying any state funds toward abortion services. Since 1993, Carnahan has fought bitterly with many legislators over Planned Parenthood funding.
In February, the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Missouri may make sure state money does not support abortion services, directly or indirectly. To receive a portion of the money Missouri contributes to family planning services, any abortion provider will have to operate its abortion services separately, in a separate building, with a separate staff and separate telephones.
Chris Sifford, Carnahan's spokesperson, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch the governor will sign the bill, despite the family planning provisions.
Abortion is likely to remain a hot topic in Missouri. Tuesday, legislators approved a bill that says anyone who kills a fetus once its navel or chin has passed a woman's cervix has committed infanticide. Supporters of the measure say it prohibits late-term abortion procedures called 'partial-birth' abortion. Opponents argue it bans all abortions and is unconstitutional.
Carnahan called the bill "ill-conceived and totally deceitful" and intends to veto it.
The Missouri legislature will meet for a veto session in September and it may have enough votes to override a veto of the bill.