JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – Republican-led legislatures in five states believe they've found a way to ease the budget crunch - eliminate the costly 2004 presidential primaries.
President Bush is unlikely to face any serious opposition in the Republican run-up to the election so any budget-driven change to the primary would affect the growing field of Democratic candidates.
State Democratic lawmakers are crying foul, arguing that their GOP colleagues' motivation is political.
In Arizona, Kansas, Missouri and Utah, Republican lawmakers have taken the initial steps either to replace the primary with a caucus that would involve party delegates or to scrap the primary completely.
In three of the four states - Arizona, Kansas and Missouri - Democratic governors would likely veto a Republican-crafted bill to change the election system.
A measure in Utah, with Republican Gov. Mike Leavitt, has a better chance of becoming law.
Colorado was first out of the chute. Elimination of that state's presidential primary was among a dozen budget-cutting bills aimed at slashing $800 million from the state's 2002-03 budget. Signed into law March 5 by GOP Gov. Bill Owens, the measure eliminating the Colorado primary gives the state a one-time savings of $2.2 million.
In Missouri, one House committee has slashed the $3.7 million set aside for the Feb. 3, 2004 primary; another has voted to repeal the law allowing the contest.
Just last year, Missouri lawmakers had moved up the date of the primary in an attempt to draw more national attention. But this year, Republican lawmakers are citing a projected budget shortfall of $1 billion and the 19 percent voter turnout in the 2000 primary.
"If we're only getting low turnout, why would you want to spend close to $4 million in a tight budget year when we could use that money for something else?" said Republican Rep. Bill Deeken, a former county election official. "I think it's a waste of money."
Countered Democratic Rep. Jim Seigfreid: "I think there is some politics involved."
Missouri has traditionally used caucuses to choose presidential nominees and delegates to the conventions. Primaries were held in March 2000, when Missouri native Bill Bradley was seeking the Democratic nomination, and in March 1988, when Democratic Rep. Dick Gephardt was running for president. Gephardt, who is again seeking the nomination, backs a primary.
Among the unfolding state efforts:
-- In Kansas, the GOP-controlled Senate passed a bill to cancel the primary and return to the caucus system. Republican House Speaker Doug Mays said the reason was twofold: Bush likely will be nominated again and the state is facing a $750 million shortfall.
-- The Republican-controlled Utah Legislature voted to withhold funding for the 2004 presidential primary - a move that is expected to save about $600,000. Utah's bill would allow the primary to return in future years, but only if there is enough money to pay for it.
-- A state Senate committee in Arizona backed a Republican measure to save $3 million by forgoing that state's primary. "My district sent me down here to balance the budget without a tax increase. I'm trying to wring every dollar out of state government that I can," said Republican state Sen. Jack Harper.
States looking to save money on elections may have few options, said Jennie Bowser, a policy analyst with the National Conference of State Legislatures. "Primaries are one of the few places that they can cut some spending," Bowser said.