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Gaining Mileage From Tax Hike, Mo. Governor Widens Lead

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St. Louis

Gov. Mel Carnahan, a Democrat, concocted what looked like a recipe for political disaster.

When he ran for governor of Missouri in 1992, he told voters that they would get to vote on any major new taxes for education. But then, barely a year later, he backed a $310 million tax plan for schools on his own.

Voters here tend to like new taxes as much as head colds. But they hardly appear ready to oust their first-term governor. In fact, Mr. Carnahan, 62, is trumpeting his tax increase for schools and bucking conventional wisdom by holding a 33-point lead in one recent poll.

While he is aided by a strong economy, he sees the Nov. 5 election as a referendum on his education stand and appears to be in agreement with many voters that his support for the tax hike reflects strength as a leader.

"At least we have somebody doing something," said Daniel Contarini, a conservative-leaning police officer in rural Washington, Mo. "There's leadership from the state Capitol we haven't seen in eight years."

His Republican challenger is three-term State Auditor Margaret Kelly, the first woman to hold statewide elected office in Missouri.

Although she did not officially begin her campaign until this month, Ms. Kelly, 61, is making up for lost time by aggressively portraying the governor as "Tax Man Carnahan." To her, the 1993 tax is a broken promise for which Mr. Carnahan should pay.

'Ending a Crisis'

The tax issue erupted in February 1993 when Cole County Circuit Court Judge Byron L. Kinder ruled that the state's school-funding formula was inadequate and violated the state constitution.

At the time, annual per-pupil spending in Missouri school districts ranged from $2,653 to $9,750. In his ruling, Judge Kinder wrote that the gaps "are associated with local property wealth or are simply irrational."

He gave the legislature 90 days from the close of its 1993 session to fix the system. He also threatened to impose a plan costing up to $1 billion--the difference between state spending on schools and the national average.

Mr. Carnahan, whose father was a school superintendent and U.S. congressman, said his $364 million Outstanding Schools Act was a more affordable option that would boost funding to poorer districts.

And its reform provisions have led to state academic standards, lower class sizes in 300 districts, a 57 percent increase in all-day kindergarten, and improved school technology, he argues.

"I did what I thought was right for families and children of Missouri. I did not have enough time" to take it to voters, Mr. Carnahan said. "We decided to end the crisis."

But Ms. Kelly, who wants to cut state taxes $640 million and freeze spending in all areas except education and corrections, has another take on the 1993 tax.

She has blasted the governor, pointing out that Judge Kinder's decision did not require new taxes.

Ms. Kelly said she would have reshuffled state spending to find extra funds.

"It's a sad story of taxing excess and liberal spending policies that should not be forgotten by taxpayers at election time," she declared.

And Ms. Kelly shares none of the governor's enthusiasm for his school-reform package.

Where Mr. Carnahan is proposing a $1,500 tax credit for two years of postsecondary education, Ms. Kelly says that tuition would come down if state colleges and universities were better managed.

Ms. Kelly would consider publicly funded K-12 school vouchers, which Mr. Carnahan opposes.

"The first thing we need to do is move control of public education back to the local level," she said. "We need to return to teaching the basics."

Voter Interest Lacking

Despite Ms. Kelly's attacks, her poll numbers are falling.

And in Washington, a town of 12,000 on the Missouri River 45 miles west of St. Louis, members of the local Kiwanis Club say they are not surprised.

For starters, the race remains a mystery to them.

Not one of the 18 Kiwanians gathered for their weekly lunch at Altamueller's Restaurant listened to the Oct. 4 debate, which was broadcast the night before by radio.

"I don't think if you interviewed 100 people they could tell you the candidates' positions," said Wayne Dothage, the club president and a high school teacher. "It's a poor campaign for getting information to voters."

They know Ms. Kelly for her high-profile audits that have found waste at all levels of government, but say that her reserved personality is not endearing.

More important, Ms. Kelly's platform is obscure at best, largely because she has restricted most of her campaigning to a last-minute, six-week blitz before the election. Ms. Kelly started September with $364,000 in campaign funds while Mr. Carnahan had $1.5 million on hand.

"She's kind of the unknown character in this election," Mr. Dothage said.

Others said the presidential race weighs more heavily on them than the race for governor, though few realized--or seemed to care--that Governor Carnahan is also actively campaigning for President Clinton.

"To be honest, I'm not following the governor's race that closely," said Brenda Williams, a local stockbroker.

She does not want Mr. Clinton re-elected, but is not ready to jump on the state GOP bandwagon. "I like to be able to vote a split ticket," she said.

That might be expected, since the mayor and City Council are elected on a nonpartisan ballot.

But even if Ms. Kelly got her anti-tax message out, it is not clear it would help her much.

"Everybody complains about taxes, but Missourians are not badly taxed," said Cheryl Pecka, who manages a job-training program for adults. Missouri ranks 48th in state tax rates as a percentage of personal income.

Ironically, when the state's new school-funding formula took effect in 1994, the schools in Washington lost state aid because the town was at the high-wealth end of the spending spectrum.

"It was disheartening to us because the smaller districts were going on a spending frenzy while we were cutting back," Robin Kluesner, a local accountant, said.

But Washington residents do not blame Mr. Carnahan any more than state lawmakers for the tax, and, as polls suggest, education spending is attracting voters to the Democrat.

"He's seen as someone who's done something," Ms. Pecka said.

A Conservative Democrat

The forgiving attitude toward Mr. Carnahan is understandable, some political analysts say.

"The economy is good, and revenue is up," said Don Phares, a professor of economics and public policy at the University of Missouri at St. Louis. "If the economy were bad, you'd find more resistance."

Nationally, governors can get away with raising revenues for education, even if it means higher taxes, says Doug Richardson, the director of policy for the Democratic Governors' Association.

"Even in surveys now, you'll find people are willing to pay more for education. It's one of the few things," he said. "But you have to show results."

Moreover, Mr. Carnahan, much like the president he supports, has made strong and noticeable efforts to shore up his image with conservatives since 1993.

His re-election platform calls for a $230 million sales-tax cut on food items. And he has supported a ballot measure that would require tax increases of more than $50 million to be approved by voters.

He also stresses that his Outstanding Schools Act urges local--not state--control. "We give districts help if they do things we hope they do," Mr. Carnahan said. "That's the ideal relationship between state and local control and parental involvement."

That may be enough to satisfy would-be Kelly voters.

"Missouri Democrats tend to be fairly conservative," Mr. Phares said. "Their party affiliation may be Democrat, but policywise, they're consistent with Republicans in other states."

GOP Push

But Republican party activists say that Mr. Carnahan will not get off so lightly.

"Mel Carnahan is spending $1.5 million on television ads to fool the voters of Missouri," said Jack Oliver, the executive director of Victory '96, a statewide group that supports Republican candidates.

Republicans, locally and nationally, hope to remind Missouri voters that the GOP is the party of low taxes, and are sponsoring a trip to Missouri this week by Gov. Terry E. Branstad, the popular four-term governor of neighboring Iowa, to campaign for Ms. Kelly.

"President Clinton and Democrats are taking credit for lowering taxes and creating jobs," said Kirsten Fedewa, the communications director for the Republican Governors' Association. "Republican governors are responsible for this good news."

The Missouri race is one of 11 gubernatorial contests nationwide. Six of the 17 seats held by Democrats and five of the 32 seats belonging to Republicans are up for grabs. (The governor of Maine is an independent.)

Mr. Oliver predicts that what looked like a dangerous political mix for Mr. Carnahan in 1993 will not turn into a badge of honor for the governor this year. The Missouri Republican activist said voters will vent their frustration at the polls. "He's trying to hide behind a court order that did not require him to raise taxes."

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