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As new session nears, legislators hope to resolve last term's unfinished business

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 28, 2011 - After Missouri's General Assembly failed to accomplish many of its goals this year in regular and special session, lawmakers are looking to next year to complete unfinished business -- and tackle complex issues.

The session starts Jan. 4.

The General Assembly's 2011 session was characterized by big debates yielding little substantive action. For example, a wide-ranging economic development bill with incentives to attract international trade to Lambert-St. Louis International Airport foundered in both the regular and special sessions. Other bills less expansive in scope also fell by the wayside.

So it's not surprising lawmakers' priorities include some familiar items: workers' compensation regulations and discrimination laws, and less controversial economic development initiatives.

Even in an election year when sweeping legislative action tends to be rare, lawmakers also are taking aim at thornier issues, including education policy and funding and regulation of the so-called "payday loan" industry.

Lawmakers also are eyeing structural changes to state government, restrictions on legislative perks and caps on campaign donations. (Those efforts will be covered separately.)

Additionally, Republican legislative leaders are angling for a more collegial relationship between the two GOP-controlled chambers, which seem constantly at odds with each other. And some lawmakers foresee a greater emphasis on quicker action to avoid this year's pitfalls.

"There's a definite consensus that we need to be very productive, particularly in the first two to three months of session," said state Sen. John Lamping, R-Ladue. "So we all know what types of things are going to be contentious and bog us down. We as a caucus have to show that we can be productive and be productive early and consistently the first two or three months. If we get to April 1 and we've done very little, we're in trouble."

Eye On Workers Compensation

Senate President Pro Tem Rob Mayer, R-Dexter, said the Senate plans to move quickly on several bills debated in 2011:

  • Restricting damages on workplace discrimination claims. That bill passed both chambers but was vetoed by Gov. Jay Nixon.
  • Changing the state's Second Injury Fund, which compensates an employee with a pre-existing ailment when injured on the job.
  • Moving certain workers compensation claims away from civil courts. State Sen. Jack Goodman's bill this year specifically dealt with claims involving injuries caused by other workers. That measure failed to pass last year.

"Hopefully, we sit down with the governor and see what he's willing to sign and see if that's acceptable to both legislative chambers," said Mayer, referring to workers compensation and workplace discrimination. "I believe we can do that early on in the session."
He also said it was possible both chambers could agree on less controversial elements of the economic development bill, such as incentives for data centers and sporting events.

House Speaker Steve Tilley, R-Perryville, said that the House would also deal with workers compensation and workplace discrimination.

Tilley also suggests a decreased emphasis on sweeping economic development bills, preferring to pass each component individually.

"I like things to live or die on their own merit," said Tilley. "If data centers are a good idea, it should live or die on its own merit. If amateur sporting events are a good idea, it should live or die on its own merit."

House Minority Leader Mike Talboy, D-Kansas City, said while the legislature should look at ideas that have already been vetted, the two chambers should also be receptive to new ideas.

"We need to take a much broader approach," Talboy said. "Because let's face it, we're (at a point) in the economic crisis that this budget shortfall (means) there isn't a whole lot of money to do a whole lot of things. So we need to concentrate the money that we have on doing very good, meaningful, thoughtful things."

'Turner' Decision in the Spotlight

A number of lawmakers interviewed by the Beacon say they will take a look at legislation to deal with last year's Turner vs. Clayton decision.

That decision upheld a law allowing students in an unaccredited Missouri school district — currently St. Louis and Riverview Gardens, with Kansas City on the horizon -- to transfer to accredited districts in adjacent areas. As the Beacon reported earlier this month, the decision could prompt thousands of students in St. Louis to transfer to nearby districts.

After legislative "fixes" to the decision faltered this year, lawmakers say they will tackle the issue again. There's friction between lawmakers who want to provide districts discretion over how many students to accept and others who favor a comprehensive solution that includes scholarships.

State Rep. Scott Dieckhaus -- a Washington Republican who chairs the House Education Committee -- said any bill had to go further than allowing districts to limit the influx of students.

"We still have a large gap between the number of kids looking for alternatives and the number of seats available in the county," Dieckhaus said. "We are going to have to look at a multi-faceted solution. ... When you look at this issue, you need to look at it as an education, an economic development [and] a population stabilization issue. We need to look at this from a lot of different areas that we traditionally haven't looked at this issue through those prisms before."

Tilley added he hoped the legislature would pass a "large education bill," including an expansion of charter schools and tuition tax credits so that children in unaccredited districts can go to other schools.

But Talboy said it may be for the best for lawmakers to avoid attaching controversial elements -- such as tuition tax credits -- onto any education bill. Many Democrats oppose tuition tax credits, arguing that they siphon money away from public schools.

"If you try to overreach and do too many controversial things in one bill, you run the very real risk of getting nothing done," Talboy said. "And having the problem then linger and having (the kids hurt), I think that a responsible approach needs to be taken."

State Sen. Eric Schmitt, R-Glendale, said there's "obviously a concern that there won't be control over the number of slots."

"In my neck of the woods, all the school funding is about 93 percent local," said Schmitt, whose district includes the Webster Groves and Kirkwood school districts. "Local taxpayers are funding education to a great degree, and there are obviously property tax issues that go along with that. And not to have any control over the number of students in your districts or particular schools or particular classrooms is something that seems reasonable to fix."

Schmitt, though, says he's not sure how the issue will play out. But he said, "Clearly, the clock is ticking."

'Payday Loans' Get A Look

A looming ballot initiative may prompt lawmakers to pass legislation on "payday loans," which involve small loans to individuals with poor credit.

This year, two area lawmakers -- state Sens. Joe Keaveny, D-St. Louis, and Lamping -- have legislation on the issue. Both would bar individuals from taking out another loan if they have one outstanding or within a day of a borrower paying off a loan. They would also provide a borrower with 90 days to repay the loan and require payment every 15 days. And it would allow a borrower to renew a loan only once.

Lamping said his bill will be a "start" for what he sees as a long-and-winding process to come up with a final bill.

"If we actually pass something this year, it will start with what I filed and go from there," he said.

Advocates for stricter regulation have long focused on capping interest rates. State Rep. Mary Still, D-Columbia, has proposed a 36 percent limit, which is also the interest rate in an initiative petition being circulated.

Still said the prospect of a ballot item could prompt legislative action.

"Everybody's going to be taking a second look at this," Still said. "The predatory lenders understand that if this gets on the ballot, then it will win. It won in Montana with 70 percent of the vote. It won in Ohio with more than 60 percent of the vote. It's a bipartisan issue. And if it gets on the ballot, it will win. So, they're going to be anxious to put out something that makes it appear that there will be reform."

But Lamping said focusing on capping interest may have unintended consequences.

"I know that the ballot initiative calls for a 36 percent cap," said Lamping. "Well, why that number? What's that mean for a one-day loan or a one-week loan? The people that are proposing the ballot initiative -- and this is no great secret -- (want) to get rid of the industry. They know that a 36 interest rate cap will get rid of the payday loan industry."

Still said was the 36 percent figure was used in former Sen. Jim Talent's legislation dealing with payday lending for the military. She also said the FDIC also recommended such an interest rate.

But Lamping added the ballot effort is not "an honest solution that allows the payday loan industry to exist." He said such a strict cap on interest rates would drive the companies out of the state and would hurt people with less-than-stellar credit.

"The question I have for people who are anti-payday loan -- and I'm not pro-payday loan -- is where are people going to borrow the money?" Lamping said. "Because somebody who needs to borrow $200 for 10 days, they need to borrow $200 for 10 days. If the demand for capital doesn't go away, where do they get it? The answer is, 'Well, they'll go to their family.' Well, they're already going to their family, that's why they end up at the payday loan office. They go to family first, not second.

"My answer is they'd probably go to the street," Lamping added. "Or they have checks bounce and they have rent and utility bills shut off."

Still disagreed, saying that people could use credit unions for small loans.

"There are too many (payday) lenders on every corner," Still said. "People just get the impression that it's easy money. People need really, really to evaluate whether they are in the position to pay back a loan. And they can go to a credit union. It will take a little effort, they're not on every corner. But options are available for people that do not put them in this debt trap that they can never get out of."

Lamping's bill would require the Department of Insurance to develop a statewide database to track the loans. Keaveny's bill doesn't include that provision, mainly because he said that he doubts it can get through the Senate.

Without some sort of tracking system, Still said it would be difficult -- if not impossible -- to know whether people are complying with the new regulations.

Jason Rosenbaum, a freelance journalist in St. Louis, covers state and local government and politics.

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.

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