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Government, Politics & Issues

Legislative session winds up short of substance, long on symbolism

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 18, 2012 - Aside from passing a budget on time, this year’s session of the Missouri General Assembly was arguably small on substance and big on symbolism.

Many of the major transformative efforts that had attracted early headlines for Republican legislative leaders – from revamping teacher tenure to retooling workers’ rights – fell short. 

Instead, most of the major successes involved lower-profile issues, such as setting up a dedicated source of funding for the state’s veterans homes and overhauling aspects of the state’s judicial system so that, among other things, there no longer would be stark sentencing differences between people found guilty of using crack cocaine or powder cocaine.

Much of the session’s 4 ½ months offered a sharp contrast to the 2011 session’s sweeping initiatives, such as a vain effort to push through an economic development bill with incentives to create an international trade hub at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport.

Last year’s failures, including a disappointing fall special session, may have set the stage for this year’s less ambitious agenda.

For the St. Louis area, victories included legislative approval of a local vote on a proposal to impose a sales tax to finance improvements near the Arch grounds.

The highest profile measure during the session’s last days -- a bill dealing with religious objections to insurance coverage for contraception, abortion and sterilization – ended up tossing out most of conservatives' long-sought broader provisions, such as allowing pharmacies not to stock certain medicines.

After several years of futile fights, legislators did pass changes in the state’s workers’ compensation system. But that bill, too, was dramatically scaled back so that its key provision protected co-workers from being sued if an employee got injured or killed on the job in an accident.

Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, vetoed an earlier, broader version passed by the General Assembly that had been strongly backed by business but ardently opposed by labor.

Despite business' pressure, legislators once again failed to revamp the state’s underfunded Second Injury Fund which covers on-the-job injuries for workers with preexisting conditions.

For all the attention on public education, the only major bill to land on the governor’s desk dealt with charter schools. The measure expands the number of districts that can set up charter schools, but it also imposes more regulations in hopes of curbing the number of those that fail.

But the failed fights over teacher tenure and seniority rights did attract national attention, including some from former Washington D.C. school superintendent Michelle Rhee, now a leader of a group called “Students First.” Some legislators claimed to have seen her, or a look-alike, in the state Capitol during the session’s final week.

Also attracting national attention were Friday’s votes by the General Assembly to allow employers not to provide insurance coverage for contraception, abortion or sterilization. Some national groups sent out statements casting the bill as symbolic of the national battle over reproductive rights.

The bill appears to be at odds with the federal Affordable Care Act, now before the U.S. Supreme Court. And that’s what its advocates have in mind, in hopes of making a national statement.

Missouri’s Republican legislative leaders also had a national target in mind – the federal government and the Obama administration – with this week’s passage of a bill that bars the creation of a state health-insurance exchange, as mandated by the Affordable Care Act.  The bill, now sent to Nixon, would allow an exchange only if legislators or Missouri voters allow it.

The measure is set to go before Missouri voters in November, with the results potentially attracting national interest.

Jones cites successes, blasts senators

In dueling news conferences after the session ended at 6 p.m. on Friday, Nixon and Republican legislative leaders generally accentuated the positive.

All noted that weeks had been spent crafting a $24 billion budget during trying economic times. For the first time in four years, no federal money was available to ease the state’s financial squeeze.

The Missouri Budget Project, a watchdog group, issued a statement late Friday asserting that, “The budget that passed did not include any reserve funds or funding for supplemental budget bills. As a result, mid-year budget cuts of more than $100 million are virtually guaranteed."

The Senate derailed a last-minute House effort to tack on "tax amnesty" onto related bills, which House budget leaders and Nixon believed could bring in $70 million in unpaid back state taxes.

Former state Senate President Pro Tem Michael Gibbons, R-Kirkwood and now a lobbyist, observed that the state’s tight fiscal picture had forced legislators to spend so much energy on the budget that, once it was passed May 10, they had limited interest or time to deal with other issues.

Still, legislative leaders said much was achieved during the final week, and during the session.

“We were able to pass legislation placing Missouri not only on a strong economic path, but a strong moral path as well,” said House Majority Leader Tim Jones, R-Eureka, designated to be the next state House speaker. The outgoing speaker, Steve Tilley, R-Perryville, skipped out several hours before the session ended to attend his daughter’s high school graduation.

Jones -- who attracted attention for his Tweets jabbing liberals -- said that the session had achieved success in four key areas: “Protecting taxpayers, creating jobs, reforming our schools, protecting our values.”

But Jones also vented, on the House floor and in the news conference, at scuttled bills that he blamed on “renegade senators with personal agendas.’’

“Many of those personalities will not be here next year,” added Jones. “And the ones that will be here are the ones that I have the best relationships with.”

He singled out Senate Majority Leader Tom Dempsey, R-St. Charles, who is in line to be the next Senate president pro tem. “I can tell you I spoke with [Dempsey] extensively throughout the session,” Jones said. “And we never had a disagreement.… We had challenges; we had issues we had to overcome. We overcame them together.”

Boring final week?

Dempsey wasn’t disappointed that this session’s final week was not as hectic as previous years.

“As the majority leader, I like a boring week,” Dempsey said. Overall, he added, “It’s been a productive year. In an election year when redistricting seemed to fray relationships, we have moved and will continue to move some very substantive legislation.”

Senate President Pro Tem Rob Mayer – a Dexter Republican leaving the Missouri Senate due to term limits – described his time as leader of the Missouri Senate as a “humbling, exciting and at times frustrating experience.” But he added the chamber was able to pass bills that will have resonance, including funding for veterans’ homes and making it easier to transfer college hours to other Missouri universities.

“We did a lot of good things, it was a challenging session,” said Mayer, who is running for a judgeship this fall in southeast Missouri.

Senate Minority Leader Victor Callahan, D-Independence, said in a press release that the session was successful in the sense that controversial measures – such transforming Missouri into a right-to-work state – were blocked or dropped.

Referring to Republicans' huge majority in the Senate, Callahan observed, “They could have 'gone nuclear' ... to just roll over the eight Democrats in the Senate, and several of their members were calling for just that."

He praised Dempsey for opting not to try it.

Wrote state Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal in an e-release sent to allies late Friday: "Sometimes a legislative session is noteworthy because of what did NOT pass, and I think the 2012 session falls into the latter category."

Education sticking point

But not every senator was pleased with the session's outcome.

Sen. Kiki Curls, D-Kansas City, admonished both the Senate and the House for not passing legislation that would eliminate a two-year waiting period before the state could take over an unaccredited school district. The bill was especially pertinent to the Kansas City School District, which recently became unaccredited.

Curls said it was held up until the Senate took action on a bill that would have eliminated the protection of seniority when teachers are laid off.

Friday afternoon, Curls complained, “At this point, it’s difficult to sit here and listen to the remainder of the bills ... when we have 17,000 students in the Kansas City School District and an entire community that is hanging in the balance over this bill. At this point I am very disgusted with the process here. It’s a part of the process, but I do not have to like it. At all.”

When the Senate did take up the teacher seniority bill with less than hour to go, the bill’s handler, state Sen. Scott Rupp, R-Wentzville, decided to drop the effort when two St. Louis state senators – Chappelle-Nadal and Robin Wright-Jones – made clear they would filibuster.

House leaders contended that it was the Senate that had linked the two bills.

Nixon: Special session unlikely

Also in limbo was an effort to allow some local jurisdictions to reinstate a sales tax on the out-of-state purchases of new cars later registered in Missouri. The Missouri Supreme Court ruled in January that without a local vote, such a tax was improper.

The General Assembly passed a bill to restore the tax, but Nixon hinted that he might veto the measure, which he viewed as an improper tax increase. He said Friday that he agreed with the court that a local vote was needed.

Legislators failed to come up with a different option before the session ended.

Nixon said he planned to undertake “a careful and thorough review” of all the bills that passed – and he demurred when asked if there were any that he particularly disliked.

The governor did say he was disappointed that the General Assembly didn’t pass more legislation related to job creation – a topic that prompted his decision last fall to call a special session.

Perhaps reflecting that special session's failure, the governor indicated Friday that such a special session was unlikely this year.  “As I sit here right now, they’ve had a good amount of time to do their work and I don’t sit here with a pressing need” for a special session, the governor said.

While he wouldn’t grade the session, Nixon did say that lawmakers sent what he deemed significant legislation to his desk, including the veterans’ home funding bill, a major priority for Tilley. Casino entry fees will be used.

Nixon also praised lawmakers for sending him a budget on time.

“We got a lot of the people’s work done this year,” Nixon said. “I thank the members for their work and we’ll move on. I think we had some solid steps forward on a lot of fronts.”

But when asked how he would describe the session, Nixon observed, “I wouldn’t want to characterize it in one word.”

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