Mo. Digital News
Missouri Digital News
Mo. Digital News
Missouri Digital News
Lobbyist Money Help
By Phill Brooks
«RM75»«FC»«MDBO»COL126.PRB - Tax Cut Tactics«MDNM»
The history of the tax-cut fight between the governor and the legislature has caused me to wonder if there are not some hidden tactics at play.
By nature, journalists are skeptical about coincidences. And what's happened this year is almost an identical repeat of last year.
Like last year, soon after the tax-cut bill came to the governor's desk, Jay Nixon proclaimed his administration had found a mistake that would make the cost of lost tax revenue far higher than planned.
Like last year, legislative staff had not caught it. They used information provided by Nixon's own tax collection agency. But neither the Revenue Department nor the governor's budget office alerted legislative staff to an unintended tax consequence.
Again, it was only after the measure had been passed -- when it was too late for the legislature to fix the bill -- that Nixon announced the mistake and vowed a statewide campaign to rally public opposition to the bill.
There's the intriguing question as to when Nixon's administration realized there was a potential problem. Nixon told reporters that his office became aware of the issue soon after the bill was passed.
But what about the Revenue Department and his budget unit? If the problem was as obvious as Nixon describes, did not one administration tax expert read the bill and catch the issue?
A Nixon ally told me it's not the Democratic governor's job to facilitate the Republican legislature's efforts to push through a major tax increase opposed by Democrats.
Nixon himself suggested the legislature take responsibility.
"You have to read bills in order to ascertain problems," Nixon responded when asked how it was possible the legislature did not catch the mistake.
When I was talking about all of this to a long-time lobbyist the other day, he remarked that with legislative term limits, lawmakers are outmatched if the governor is going to approach the process as a competitive sport rather than a collaborative effort.
Before term limits, that was not always the case. I've seen governors out foxed by the legislature.
The best example was in 1990 when Gov. John Aschroft called on legislators to strip convicted drug users of driving and professional occupation licenses.
Even some Republicans were alarmed at their governor's proposal. Banning a released inmate from being able to drive to work or be employed in a licensed profession, like barbering, increased the chances the ex-con would return to crime.
But there were political risks to voting against an anti-crime bill. So legislative leaders concocted a fake gridlock between the House and Senate.
Each chamber passed a version of Ashcroft's idea, but the House-Senate conference committee could not work out an agreement. Ashcroft was so fooled, he praised lawmakers for getting ever so close.
When, in the following year, he renewed his call, one of the legislative plotters confided to me they would not be able to pull it off a second year in a row.
Ashcroft, he regretfully conceded, would realize he was being played and go public.
But Ashcroft never did. And for each of the final three years of his term as governor, his anti-drug idea would die in a House-Senate grid standoff.
As for this year's tax debate, if you're really cynical, you might think that someone in the legislature wanted to assure that Nixon would have to veto the bill by sticking in a seemingly simple sentence that could create a $4.8 billion budget hole.
It would not be unprecedented for one lawmaker to sneak into a bill a seemingly insignificant provision that effectively kills the measure.
But I don't think that's happening this year. There's a real fervor among Republican legislators for a significant tax cut.
Besides, legislative leaders along with the bill's sponsor are adamant that Nixon is wrong in his interpretation about the provision.
[Phill Brooks has been a Missouri statehouse reporter since 1970, making him dean of the statehouse press corps. He is the statehouse correspondent for KMOX Radio, director of MDN and an emeritus faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism. He has covered every governor since the late Warren Hearnes.]
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