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Taxes may dominate '99 session

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by Karen E. Culp

SBJ Staff

It's time for Missouri senators and representatives to head back to Jefferson City for the new session Jan. 6.

Among the legislators from the Springfield area will be two new representatives, both Republicans, who are taking over the seats of resigning Reps. Chuck Wooten and Phil Wannenmacher.

Matt Blunt, son of Congressman Roy Blunt, will fill the seat for District 139 while Mark Wright will take over Wooten's District 137 seat.

Lawmakers discussed some of their priorities for 1999 before leaving for the new session. Three topics were a concern for all of them: cutting taxes, funding schools and taking care of the region's highways and bridges.

"Our No. 1 priority again this year will be cutting taxes; the question is, where do we cut?" said Speaker Pro-Tem and Nixa Democrat Jim Kreider. Kreider lists two potential cuts for businesses.

One would involve a 15 percent tax credit for businesses that have on-site child-care facilities; the other would give the same 15 percent credit to businesses that initiate Americans with Disabilities Act improvements to their buildings.

Kreider said he is also in favor of giving tax breaks for people who produce films in the state of Missouri.

Norma Champion, a Republican representing the 134th District, said there will probably be talk of tax relief for small businesses, as well as tax relief for the elderly and those with low incomes.

Blunt said he favors a 0.5 percent reduction in the state income tax, though he doesn't know what kind of support the House might have for such a measure. He also favors reducing corporate income taxes.

"I don't know if either of those are realistic at this point, but it doesn't make any sense for the state to continue to over-collect taxes," Blunt said.

Sen. Roseann Bentley said there will be several tax-reducing proposals in order to help the state comply with the Hancock Amendment tax lid.

"Right now there are a lot of people talking about reducing what we take in. I'll be looking at a lot of different bills to support that," Bentley said.

Many legislators are also talking about what might happen to the school funding formula in Missouri, especially its dependence on property taxes.

Schilling said he wanted to caution his fellow legislators about jumping too quickly to challenge the property tax funding mechanism for schools.

"Right now, property tax is a more stable funding mechanism, and the money collected from property taxes doesn't get worked around by the legislature in any way. We might be putting school funding in danger if we pull that money through the legislature," Schilling said.

Champion said the state needs a better way to fund education and that a number of her constituents were paying property taxes they couldn't really afford.

"You get into a situation where you're paying for the property you've bought over and over. It gets very difficult for low income people to afford, and we're not adequately funding education through the property taxes," Champion said.

Champion and Bentley said they favored some sort of per-child allowance for education spending, so that individual districts get their fair share of funding.

"We have to develop something that allows us to be less dependent on property tax. I've heard of a lot of my constituents losing their homes because they can't afford to pay the property taxes as they've continued to rise," Bentley said.

She added that she watched what happened in Michigan when the state began using a sales-tax disbursal for its education funding.

"Many people in Michigan were concerned the system might falter, but they were happily surprised to see it work well," Bentley said.

Rep. Roy Holand, the only Springfield representative to serve on the House Education Committee, said there are a number of options for getting more funding for schools with less reliance on property taxes.

"There are a number of scenarios where the district could assess local levies and tax itself and keep the money here," Holand said.

Many legislators are calling for more oversight of the Missouri Department of Transportation, which abandoned a 15-year plan this summer because funds were lacking for its completion. The department instead drew up a five-year plan, and one representative said that Springfield's provisions were covered in that plan.

"Everything we were to get with the 15-year plan we will be getting in the five-year plan. It's still got the improvement to the Sunshine and 65 intersection, expanding James River to I-44, and the four lanes to Branson and Kansas City," Holand said.

Schilling said that although there is talk of repealing the 6-cent gas tax put in place to fund the 15-year plan, such talk is simply "political posturing."

"It is unproductive at this point to keep arguing. We have to recognize that mistakes were made and move on," Schilling said.

Others were not as ready to forgive and forget.

"There's a big problem with the credibility of the highway department at this point, and I am not going to be able to help or support them until I am satisfied that the money they're getting is being spent efficiently," Kreider said.

Champion agreed that the department should account for its spending, and she wants details on expenditures outside the 15-year plan.

Kreider said the needs for improved highways are great around Nixa.

"I'm determined to see that we get our share. Our roads and bridges down here need it," Kreider said.

"I think Missouri taxpayers ought to be furious with the Missouri Department of Transportation for eliminating the 15-year plan. I don't think the numbers add up, and I don't think Missourians will be willing to buy into future plans. I think we need to investigate where the money went," Blunt said.

Wright said he had already signed onto a bill to eliminate the 6-cent gas tax until "we have a bona fide plan. If you don't have the 15-year plan, then all you have is a tax plan."

Bentley said that because the five-year plan seemed to favor the road needs in St. Louis and Kansas City, she could not support the new plan.

"What we will do about transportation is going to be a big debate. I know we'll spend a lot of time on that this session," Bentley said.

Last session efforts were made to include small businesses and farmers in a plan that would create pools or groups of businesses to purchase health insurance for their employees. Kreider said he would support another such initiative, or one that allows small businesses to buy into the Missouri Consolidated Health Care Plan.

"I want to make sure farmers get into this bill because they are footing the bill for their own and their employees' insurance, and it can get costly," Kreider said.

Another option is to allow small businesses to deduct their health care costs from their taxes, Wright said. Holand said the proposal of allowing small businesses to buy into the state pool would have had bad results this year, since that plan has had some problems.

"I think small business would perhaps do better without such a pool," Holand said.

Bentley, who has served on a joint committee on restructuring the electricity industry in Missouri, said she thinks there will be legislation introduced, but that the issue is still too far away for any action to be taken.

"I think we've still got some watching and learning to do. I think we'll have to be concerned about what happens with other states and continue to educate ourselves on the issue," Bentley said.

Champion said she is concerned about creating an "un-level playing field" for City Utilities with a deregulation bill.

"We already have great rates here in Springfield. I don't want to do anything to jeopardize that," Champion said.

Another issue that is further away, but still could see some action this session, is what Missouri will do with the money it receives from the tobacco company settlement it will begin receiving in about two years. The legislature will debate whether to refund the money to taxpayers, or spend it on tobacco education and awareness programs, Bentley said.

Schilling said he will be reintroducing his penny-a-drink bill, money from which would go toward drunken-driving awareness.

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