Missouri lawmakers are back in Jefferson City as they prepare to kick off the 2016 legislative session at noon today.
In addition to passing the state budget, they're expected to tackle several other issues, including ethics reform and Gov. Jay Nixon's push to build a new NFL stadium for the Rams.
The stadium issue may come up early in session, because NFL owners are meeting next week to consider allowing one or more teams to move to Los Angeles. Nixon's plans for keeping the Rams in St. Louis include extending the bond payments on their current stadium to help pay for the proposed new one.
Republican lawmakers are vehemently opposed to that plan because it doesn't require approval from them or from voters. House Speaker Todd Richardson, R-Poplar Bluff, said they'll stick to that position regardless of whether the Rams stay or leave.
"I believe St. Louis is, and should remain, an NFL-caliber city," Richardson said, "but that's a different question than the one that exists over whether the governor should have the power to be able to obligate the people of this state to 30 years' worth of debt without the legislature having any say in that process."
Nixon administration officials have argued that legislative approval is not necessary and that it's vital to the economy to keep the Rams in St. Louis.
There is also expected to be an early push for various ethics reforms, include banning lobbyist gifts and making former House and Senate members wait a year or two before being allowed to work as lobbyists themselves. Senate President Pro-tem Ron Richard, R-Joplin, sounds optimistic that some sort of ethics bill could make it to the governor's desk this year.
"I notice everybody in the House has an ethics bill, but I'll have one, (too)," Richard said. "I've had one the last two years (but) haven't managed to get it through the House … (but) Todd (Richardson) is committed, he and I have visited, so I think we're going to have something we can agree on."
Most of the pre-filed ethics bills in the Senate cover several areas, while House GOP leaders are taking a single-subject approach to their ethics bills. House Minority Floor Leader Jake Hummel, D-St. Louis, says banning gifts and cooling off periods for future lobbyists may be a good start, but he adds that meaningful reform has to include campaign contribution limits:
"Any time you have someone that's writing a million-dollar check to one candidate, you've got a perception that the legislature, or the elected officials, are bought and paid for," Hummel said. "Yes, I understand the difference between buying someone a cup of coffee and giving them a million dollars, (but) for the majority party to pretend that a million-dollar campaign donation is no different than buying a cup of coffee is ridiculous."
Aside from ethics, stadium funding and the state budget, this year's hot topic is shaping up to be guns: gun rights, gun control and telling Washington to leave Missouri gun owners alone. It's popped up in past legislative sessions, but with President Barack Obama's executive order placing new restrictions on gun purchases, Missouri Republicans will likely push back hard.
"Missouri House Republicans have shown time and time again that we are here to protect the Second Amendment rights of Missouri citizens, and I think that we are going to continue to do that," said representative Jered Taylor, R-Nixa. "The president has overstepped his bounds once again, like he has time and time again, so I think that we're going to come together as a House, figure out what we need to do to move forward, and make sure that we protect those rights."
Taylor is also sponsoring a proposed sales tax holiday for gun purchases in Missouri. Fellow House member Stacey Newman, D-Richmond Heights, has strongly criticized Taylor's bill and other pro-gun proposals.
"You talk to any metropolitan police chief," Newman said. "We don't need to make it easier (to buy a gun), we don't need to make it cheaper; we need to be addressing the gun deaths that we already have, not preying into peoples' fears about self protection."
Gov. Nixon and virtually every lawmaker has labeled the need to improve transportation a top priority this year.
But no one seems to agree on how to do it.
Richardson says it'll be difficult – especially when many in his party are hesitant to embrace tax increases.
"I think it will continue to be a very, very difficult task to pass a tax increase through this legislature," he said. "We're going to be focused in the House on finding some ways to improve the transportation system and the amount of money we're spending on transportation through the budget – and trying to find some ways that we can prioritize that spending as we have revenue growth.”
Richardson also said "a small gas tax increase is not going to solve some of the major transportation projects we have, either."
"MoDOT estimates that the cost of rebuilding I-70 will be somewhere between $2 and $4 billion," he said. "Even assuming we've got a full federal match from that project, we're talking about $400 to $800 million of state money. That's not something that a 2-cent gas tax increase is going to fix."
Nixon's final session
The 2016 session will be the final one for Jay Nixon, a Democrat, who's leaving office at the end of the year due to term limits. His goals for his final legislative session include the aforementioned campaign contribution limits, along with maintaining "fiscal discipline."
"It's extremely important that you keep that fiscal discipline, that AAA (credit rating), and that we're spending money in an appropriate way," Nixon said. "We want to make sure that the economy is getting better; jobs are important."
In a brief meeting with the media Tuesday, Nixon also said he wants to see the legislative year shortened.
"I was around when we had shorter sessions," he said, "so we saw the short session-long session; and quite frankly we got as much done in the short session as we did in the long session."
In years past, legislative sessions during odd-numbered years ended in mid June, and in even-numbered years ended in mid April.
Nixon suggested that shortening the legislative session by a month, meaning mid April, would be sufficient. The only proposal so far is one in the Senate that would shorten the legislative year by one week.
Jo Mannies contributed to this report.