Missouri lawmakers return to Jefferson City this week for the 2011 legislative session. There’ll be many new faces, thanks to term limits, along with new leaders for both the State House and Senate. And Republicans now hold a veto-proof majority in the Senate and fall only three votes short of one in the House. St. Louis Public Radio’s Marshall Griffin takes a closer look at the major issues they’ll be facing this year.
GRIFFIN: The top issue every year is the state budget, which has been slashed in recent years due to the nation’s economic woes. And it’s likely to undergo even more cuts, due to the expected loss of $860 million in federal aid. Those funds were meant to offset Medicaid expenses and help pay for education needs. In addition, the annual revenue estimate that comes out before each legislative session shows moderate growth, but still predicts tax proceeds will be down $700 million from three years ago. But new House Speaker Steven Tilley is putting a positive spin on the situation:
TILLEY: “I look at it as an opportunity, not a limitation…we’ve all ran on making sure that we spend every dollar wisely, that we shrink the size of government, that we make government do more with less, and this is our opportunity to let the rubber meet the road.”
GRIFFIN: But many are worried that the state’s most vulnerable residents will be hit hard. Democrat Mike Talboy of Kansas City is the new Minority Leader in the House:
TALBOY: “While we’re balancing the budget, we need to take a look at programs across the board, not just go after programs that seem like they are easy prey to cut from.”
Most years, lawmakers are required only to pass a state budget. This year, though, they also have to pass a redistricting plan, since Missouri is losing a seat in Congress. There’s already speculation that the GOP-dominated House and Senate will try to eliminate the Third Congressional District, held by Democrat Russ Carnahan. If Governor Jay Nixon vetoes the new map, Republican lawmakers will try to override it, which would require persuading at least three House Democrats to vote with them. But Talboy doesn’t sound worried about that happening:
TALBOY: “We’ll have to wait and see what those maps look like and see who weighs in on what side, but if the Democrats don’t like it, and we’re unified in that front, then obviously they couldn’t override a veto.”
GRIFFIN: Another issue that will get attention this year is whether Missouri should be a right-to-work state. In those states, a non-union employee can refuse to pay union dues, even if a majority of co-workers have voted to unionize. It’s one of the top priorities of Rob Mayer, the new Senate President Pro-tem. He says becoming a right-to-work state would be good for Missouri’s economy:
MAYER: “When you look at the states that have enjoyed the most success in bringing more new jobs to their state and creating a greater amount of economic activity, most of those states are right-to-work states.”
GRIFFIN: Union leaders say such a move would not bring any new jobs to Missouri and would amount to government intervention in the workplace. GOP lawmakers will also likely battle over the Governor’s proposal to eliminate nearly half the state’s tax credit programs, and there’ll be renewed efforts to replace the state income tax with an expanded sales tax. In addition to shielding social programs from further cuts, Democrats want to beef up ethics rules for politicians, which would include bringing back campaign contribution limits. Dave Robertson, Political Science professor at the University of Missouri - St. Louis, says Democrats will have a hard time getting any of their agenda passed:
ROBERTSON: “It will be an almost completely defensive position that they have to take…Governor Nixon, in some ways, will have less influence, because he will have fewer troops in the state legislature willing to go to bat for the Democratic agenda.”
GRIFFIN: But Nixon still holds the veto pen, and overrides are still no guarantee, even with the expanded GOP majorities. Robertson also says the 2011 session will be affected by the large number of new lawmakers learning on the job:
ROBERTSON: “I think some of the leaders, particularly in the House, are counting on having the opportunity to guide some of these new legislators along and get them onboard to their agendas.”
GRIFFIN: And Robertson says freshmen lawmakers will also likely be courted by both special interest groups and the Nixon Administration. The 2011 session starts Wednesday at noon.