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Missouri's GOP legislative leaders achieve most of their legislative goals

When assessing the winners and losers of the Missouri legislative session, the most straightforward scorecard is to assess the legislators against their pre-session goals.

Gov. Matt Blunt was a loser. His top legislative goal, set out in his January state of the state speech, was to enact his health-care program, Insure Missouri. After his drastic cuts to the Medicaid program at the beginning of his term, Insure Missouri was expected to restore some benefits. But that effort suffered a fatal set-back when Blunt, a Republican, announced he wouldn't run for re-election.

By becoming a lame-duck, Blunt lacked the political muscle to move the legislation out of the House where Speaker Rod Jetton (R-Marble Hill) was insisting on broader reforms. Jetton and other conservative legislators believe that market economic forces are the best way to lower health-care costs and that lower costs will lead to greater access.

Once Jetton and Rep. Bob Schaaf (R-St. Joseph), chair of the special committee on health-care transformation, announced that they would tie Insure Missouri to market reforms like price transparency and deregulation of the Certificate of Need process, the bill was effectively dead. Those issues were too cumbersome to be resolved without heavy lobbying from the governor's office.

For his part, Jetton announced two legislative priorities at the beginning of the year: curbing illegal immigration and increasing the minimum salaries of Missouri's public school teachers.

Everybody and his brother were calling for immigration legislation. The legislative wrestling centered on emphasis. Republicans wanted to strip away public benefits they thought created incentives for illegals to locate in Missouri. Democrats argued that employment was the main magnet and cracking down on employers was the best course. By and large, the Republicans won out, but one measure dealing with classifying workers as employees instead of contractors brought some balance to the final bill.

Meanwhile, Jetton's attempt to win higher wages for teachers was derailed by his own hand. He and other conservative Republicans loaded up the bill with other educational reform measures, including merit pay and a tax credit for private school scholarships. As a result the teachers unions, which initially supported the bill ultimately fought against it, and it was defeated.

Jetton also led the House in its end-of-session game of chicken with the Senate. They waited until the last week to address property tax reform and campaign finance limits , top priorities for Senate Republican leadership.

Senate President Pro Tem Mike Gibbons (R-Kirkwood) announced that his No. 1 legislative priority was to give Missourians relief from rising property taxes. He accomplished his goal, an achievement Missourians will no doubt hear more about as he campaigns for attorney general. The heart of his bill requires local municipalities to "roll back" their property tax rates when increased assessments would otherwise create a higher tax bill.

Gibbon's bill encountered a last-minute scare when Rep. Mike Talboy (D-Kansas City) successfully tacked on an amendment to the property tax legislation that Democrats initially thought might sink the bill. It capped the amount that the Department of Revenue can charge for those buying its records.

Because Blunt's chief of staff, Tricia Vincent, was instrumental in approving the higher fees when she was at the DOR, some thought the amendment risked a veto. Those fears vanished when Blunt praised the legislation after it passed.

Senate Majority Leader Charlie Shields (R-Buchanan County), a rank below Gibbons in the legislative hierarchy, made repealing the limits on campaign finance one of his top priorities. Current law limits the amount an individual may contribute to a candidate. Many individuals funnel extra donations to third parties, like legislative committees, to circumvent the limits. Shields argued that removing the limits would give voters greater transparency as the money would be easier to follow.

The Senate approved the measure early in the session, against a counter-proposal for publicly financed campaigns offered by Sen. Jeff Smith (D-St. Louis). Again the House sat on the bill until the last day of session, hoping to apply pressure on the Senate to work on the bills the House had sent over. It contributed to palpable tension between the two chambers in the final week, although the Senate's bill to repeal limits on campaign donations eventually passed.

During the session, lawmakers responded quickly to some new developments. For example, the Department of Economic Development started wooing a new plant from a large Canadian aerospace firm, Bombardier. The House and Senate quickly  approved tax credits for that project.

Then late in the session the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling on the constitutionality of requiring IDs from voters, energizing the House to pass its own constitutional amendment proposal.

However, despite the House's quick action, Republicans in the Senate gamed out the actual timeline to implement the proposal. They concluded that it was not a realistic possibility for the November elections and consequently didn't even bring the bill up for debate.

Although the voter ID and a prominent anti-abortion bill failed to make it to the governor's desk, most legislative goals outlined by the Republican leadership in January were met when the legislature adjourned five months later in May -- a fact that many Republican office holders can be expected to trumpet when on the campaign trail. 

Dave Drebes runs MoScout, a private news service covering the Missouri legislature.  

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