St. Louis Public Radio News
9:20 am
Mon May 3, 2010

Missouri lawmakers turn to other issues as session nears end

Jefferson City, Mo. – With the state budget out of the way, Missouri lawmakers now have two weeks left to concentrate on other priorities. Legislation addressing tax credits, ethics, consolidation of state agencies, and autism insurance all remain unfinished going into the homestretch.

The battle over tax credits flared up nearly two weeks ago, when Governor Jay Nixon held a news conference with educators and called on lawmakers place a cap on all incentives. He also asked the legislature to transfer oversight of tax credits to the Department of Economic Development, which is part of the executive branch. House leaders balked at the move, and House Majority Floor Leader Steven Tilley said their stance remains unchanged.

"The jobs that are being done, a lot of them are being done by tax credits," Tilley said. We've got 10 percent unemployment, and his answer is to basically unilaterally disarm with all our surrounding states. The Pro-tem of the Kansas Senate said they were looking at actually expanding their tax credit proposals to be more aggressive on economic growth and development."

But Minority Floor Leader Paul LeVota, a Democrat, said Republicans are to blame, not the governor, for any lack of action on bolstering Missouri's economy.

"There's been no movement from the beginning of session," LeVota said. "There doesn't seem to be an urgency on the behalf of the majority party to get any of these things done. I don't know what they want to get done."

And LeVota said that also applies to the fact that legislation to provide autism insurance coverage and to reform ethics haven't been finalized. House Democrats were able to move a bill to the floor that would restore campaign contribution limits, but GOP leaders have vowed not to take it up because they disapprove of the method used to advance it. Speaker Pro-tem Bryan Pratt indicates that other ethics bills may have a chance during the last two weeks.

"You've got the House leadership team led by the Floor Leader and the Speaker to come in, and we're going to pass a strong ethics bill, and we've been working together to try to get a bill out of the House, and we're committed to passing a very aggressive ethics bill this session," Pratt said.

Early in the session, the Missouri Senate made it a priority to explore replacing the state income tax with an expanded sales tax. Supporters say it'll rejuvenate the state's economy and turn Missouri into a "Mecca" for jobs and investment.

Opponents say it would levy new taxes on all kinds of services and end tax breaks to businesses and non-profit charities. Although the proposal is not expected to pass this year, backers in the Senate have indicated they'll make another push during the final weeks of the session. Senate Minority Floor Leader Victor Callahan says that would be irresponsible.

"It might be the best thing in the world, it might be the worst thing in the world, we have no idea," Callahan said. There is some responsibility before you put something in the constitution to know what it does. No other state in the union has ever done this."

The Senate has also dedicated a lot of time and effort to proposals that would reorganize state government. Senators have passed legislation to consolidate the two agencies that oversee education in Missouri, along with combining the Highway Patrol and Water Patrol into one force.

Dave Robertson, a political science professor at the University of Missouri - St. Louis, said those proposals could be held hostage by the House in exchange for something their leaders want.

"That's a classic pattern, especially as the pressure for the legislature increases as the closing day becomes more and more pressing," Robertson said.

Other bills that could become bargaining chips include those dealing with abortion, photo identification for voters, red-light cameras and texting-while-driving. Some or most of those may fail in the final two weeks. But Robertson predicted that lawmakers will find a way to pass legislation providing autism insurance coverage.

"Particularly if it doesn't cost money but requires insurance companies to eat a little bit of their profits to expand coverage. It is of concern to people across the economic and political spectrum."

Robertson adds that this year's session is already unprecedented, because lawmakers wrapped up the state budget a week early. The session ends Friday, May 14th, at 6 p.m.