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Government, Politics & Issues

Missouri Legislature gets ready to renew old battles

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 31, 2009 - In an election year, the Missouri Legislature often finds its focus split between policy and politics. This coming session is shaping up to fit that mold, with bipartisan concerns over the state's budget problems expected to share floor time with potentially partisan posturing over political ethics.

Gov. Jay Nixon jumped into the fray this week over ethics, when he became the latest in a growing list of officials in both parties to offer proposals aimed at curbing what both sides agree is a growing public perception that some state lawmakers have been behaving badly, professionally or personally.

The problem will be showcased next Wednesday, when the Legislative coincidentally kicks off a new session the same day that two former legislators are slated to be in court:

  • Former state Rep. T.D. El-Amin, D-St. Louis, is scheduled to be sentenced in federal court here after pleading guilty to bribery-related charges.
  • Former state House Speaker Rod Jetton, R-Marble Hill, is to be appear in Scott County Court  in southeast Missouri on assault charges related to a sexual encounter with a woman.

But Republican legislative leaders already are signaling their opposition to the Democratic governor's chief ethics proposal, to reinstate the campaign donation limits that had been in place for more than a decade, until the GOP-controlled Legislature tossed them out in 2008.
However, there does seem to be bipartisan agreement that something needs to be done to:

  • Tackle the problems with campaign committees, which shuffle money among themselves to make it hard to track the original source of the cash;
  • Deal with state legislators like Jetton who ran political consulting businesses while still in office, or immediately jumped ship to take cushy lobbyist jobs with private firms or groups.

State House Majority Leader Steve Tilley, R-Perryville, is among those who earlier have called for restrictions before legislators can become lobbyists. Tilley also is calling for a ban on all gifts from lobbyists to legislators, including meals.
State Senate President Pro Tem Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph, is proposing that the Missouri Ethics Commission be beefed up so that it has an independent investigative arm. Shields also is calling for some sort of ban on campaign donations during the legislative session, a proposal that the courts tossed out a decade ago.

The legislative leaders agree with Nixon that the public is increasingly seeing Missouri lawmakers as people looking out for themselves more than for the public.

But politics already is at play. The governor was still in the midst of his ethics conference call/news conference Wednesday when the state Republican Party fired off a statement that accused him of fostering "a climate of corruption'' because of policy controversies involving several current or former aides.

Dave Robertson, a political science professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said that some of the ethics proposals -- such as banning gifts -- might have little effect on how legislators conduct business.

“The sort of big picture is that there’s a whole lot of money in politics,” Robertson said. “And that money helps fuel elections and re-elections and political careers. And efforts to cut a meal here or there are not going to change that big picture problem.”

Budget Battles

Nixon communications director Jack Cardetti says the governor has a number of other priorities this session. They range from requiring insurance companies to cover treatment for autism, to stiffening state laws against drunken driving, and tackling the state's rising unemployment.

But while most of those issues do have some bipartisan support, they're likely to be overshadowed by the state of Missouri's continued financial problems.

Since taking office in January, Nixon already has been forced to make close to $1 billion in state budget cuts, beginning with the previous fiscal year (2009) that already was half over when he was sworn in, and the current fiscal year (2010) that began July 1.

As of a month ago, state budget director Linda Luebbering was projecting that this fiscal year's revenue collections will end up close to 5 percent behind those of the last fiscal year. And the state's income for that earlier fiscal year, which ended June 30, ended up being 7 percent below that of the 2008 fiscal year. Nixon's cuts were necessary because the budgets were based on rosier predictions.

The GOP-led Legislature must craft a new budget for the coming fiscal year (2011) by early May, and Nixon already has announced that his budget plan for higher education will likely call for a cut of 5 percent. But since state higher-education leaders had feared worse, they've agreed that tuition would remain stagnant, and not be increased.

Senate Appropriations Chairman State Sen. Rob Mayer, R-Dexter and chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, predicts that this session will see a bitter budget battle over who gets what.

"There will be all sorts of issues regarding funding for different programs,” Mayer said in a telephone interview. “Certainly education will be at the forefront. The amount of funding that K-12 will receive out of this budget – that will be one issue. The budget as a whole is something that will have to be ironed out as each legislator in the House and the Senate, I’m sure, has certain programs that they’ll advocate for.”

Mayer indicated that the Legislature again will seek to spare the public-education budget for grades kindergarten through 12, a desire shared by Nixon. Said Mayer: “Even though revenue’s tight, we’ll certainly place it as our top spending priority.”

Health-Care Blowback

The governor and the Legislature also are warily watching Washington, where Congress has been grappling for months over various Democratic-led proposals to change the nation's health-care system.

A common feature in the otherwise differing bills that have passed the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House? Both call for expanding Medicaid coverage for the poor and disabled. Under both bills, states would be required to allow Medicaid eligibility to people earning up to 133 percent of the national poverty level.

That's a dramatic increase in Missouri, which slashed its Medicaid rolls in 2005 and now generally limits Medicaid coverage to those adults who earn no more than 20 percent of the national poverty level, or roughly an annual income of no more than $3,500. The Medicaid limits are higher for the permanently disabled, blind or those over 65.

Some predict the federal changes could force Missouri to add more than 300,000 adults to its Medicaid rolls, by raising the income limit to close to $15,000 a year.

Such a dramatic expansion is feared among legislators because the state covers about one-third of the Medicaid costs. Although the federal health-care bills call for temporary federal assistance to foot the states' added Medicaid costs, Missouri officials in both parties are concerned about the impact on the state's budget when the extra federal aid ends.

Nixon is in a touchy position because his biggest campaign pledge in 2008 had been to restore the Medicaid cuts made in 2005 by Republicans controlling the Legislature and the Governor's Mansion. He unsuccessfully sought last session to expand the Medicaid rolls by about 35,000, without using any additional state money, via an agreement with private hospitals to pay higher fees to the state that would be used to leverage more federal money. The state Senate backed the idea, but the state House killed it.

Since then, as the state's financial problems have worsened, the governor has said little about the Medicaid-expansion measures before Congress. He and his staff generally have emphasized that they're delaying any public comments until they see what federal Medicaid changes are finally approved.

But Nixon's staff has noted that some of the federal health-care proposals also would force changes in the state's regulations governing the insurance industry.

Republican critics have been more vocal.

State Sen. Jane Cunningham, R-Chesterfield, is leading a drive to get on next year's ballot a constitutional amendment that would allow Missouri to opt out of many of the health-care changes expected to be approved by Congress.

Cunningham said she had enlisted at least 16 other Republican senators as co-sponsors, close to a majority of the 34-member Senate.

At least one Democratic senator, Wes Shoemyer of Clarence, said he would fight Cunningham's measure if it came to the floor.

“If there is something meaningful passed, where people can buy into the same plans as federal employees or the lowering of Medicare option down to 55 [years] or some kind of public expansion, I will fight vigorously,” said Shoemyer, adding that such changes could help many Missourians who cannot now obtain health insurance.

However, Shields said it was too early to talk about opting Missouri out of any federal health-care changes, since Congress has yet to agree on a final version.

And some legal experts say that Cunningham's proposed state constitutional amendment likely is unconstitutional, and would be tossed out by the courts.

Jason Rosenbaum is a freelance writer based in Jefferson City.

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