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Missouri Senate at the center of final-week debates, including highway tax, liquor and First Steps

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: The Missouri Senate could determine the fate of three of the biggest legislative issues looming during this session’s final week: liquor, highway bonds and an early childhood program known as First Steps.

And right before 1 a.m. Wednesday, the Senate quickly dispatched a fourth major bill -- SB1, which changes the state's financially troubled Second Injury Fund -- by approving the bill, 33-1. The House now needs to approve the Senate changes for it to go to the desk of Gov. Jay Nixon.

For most of Tuesday afternoon and evening, the Senate was embroiled in filibusters involving two other measures that would: A) revamp the state’s liquor laws and B) ask voters to consider a temporary 1-cent sales tax to pay for a bond issue to finance widening Interstate 70, among other projects.

Unless deals are reached by Friday, the filibusters will likely kill off both bills – each of which has a St. Louis angle.

Meanwhile, Nixon handed the chamber the third issue when, minutes after 5 p.m. Tuesday, he announced his veto of a Senate bill he had initially supported because of a House action that links a tax credit program for elderly and disabled renters to aid for First Steps, an early childhood program for developmentally disabled children.

The Senate bill that Nixon vetoed, SB350, had repealed the so- called “circuit breaker” tax credit for elderly and disabled renters and set up instead a new program called the Senior Services Protection Fund, which the governor said would be used for other services for the elderly.

But in the House, Republicans had used the Senior Services Protection Fund to cover the costs of several other aid programs, including First Steps. That shift is part of a separate budget bill, subsequently approved by the Senate, that Nixon also is expected to veto because it requires him to choose between funding First Steps or the "circuit breaker" credit.

Nixon changed view of 'circuit breaker' for renters

The governor acknowledges that he initially had supported the repeal of the “circuit breaker” for elderly and disabled renters, but he maintains that he did so only if it were part of a broader effort to revamp the state’s tax credit programs, which now cost the state roughly $600 million a year.

“Senate Bill No. 350 does not constitute comprehensive tax credit reform,” Nixon said in his veto message.

By vetoing SB350, Nixon eliminates the Senior Services Protection Fund and preserves the “circuit breaker” aid program for renters. But it leaves First Steps in limbo.

His aim is to force the General Assembly to come up with an alternative this week to fund the First Steps program – or take the heat for cutting First Steps.

Some Senate Republicans are attempting to craft an alternative measure this week that ensures that First Steps is funded. But it’s unclear if House GOP leaders will go along.

Nixon held two public events earlier Tuesday to highlight his support for First Steps and to blame the General Assembly for linking it to the "circuit breaker" tax credit. He made a point, however, of praising the Senate effort to resolve the matter.

“Here in Missouri, we balance budgets, we hold the line on taxes and we protect our most vulnerable citizens,” Nixon said in his veto message. “I urge the General Assembly to act quickly to get a bill to my desk that responsibly funds the First Steps program and ensures infants and children with developmental disabilities and their families continue to receive the support and services they need.”

House Budget Committee chairman Rick Stream, R-Kirkwood, blamed the governor for the dilemma. “Balancing a budget with the governor moving the goal posts every time the political winds change is proving to be extremely difficult,” Stream said. “We also passed all of the supporting legislation required to live within our means. The legislature will now have to work together to find a solution to the problem the governor has created.”

Second Injury Fund fixes sought for years

After the swift passage of SB1, senators told reporters that they had been assured that Nixon will sign the bill.

The Second Injury Fund is a 70-year-old program set up as a workers compensation program to pay for injured workers with a pre-existing condition. The program dates back to the end of World War II and was used to encourage businesses to hire permanently wounded veterans.

Nixon had been contending at least since he was attorney general that the Second Injury Fund was underfunded and couldn't pay workers' benefits. Current Attorney General Chris Koster has said the same thing.

Nixon and others blame the General Assembly, which in 2005 reduced the premium charged to businesses to pay for the program. State Auditor Tom Schweich, a Republican, recently issued a scathing audit that warned the underfunded program would be insolvent with liabilities of more than $28 million.

Among other things, the Senate bill, SB1, shifts occupational diseases into the state workers compensation system and sets up higher business payments until the liabilities are dispatched.

The bill had earlier been approved by the House, but now must go back for another vote because of the Senate's changes.

Some business groups, including Associated Industries of Missouri, are unhappy with the Senate version and want it changed or killed. Lawyer groups, including the Missouri Association of Trial Lawyers, say they are fine with the compromise.

Filibusters may doom highway tax, liquor proposal

The Missouri Senate was still stuck in a filibuster early Wednesday over the proposed transportation sales tax.

State Sen. John Lamping, R-Ladue, was among the leaders opposing the 1-cent sales tax hike because they believe it’s too large, unnecessary or unfair.

The measure would ask voters in 2014 if they support the proposal, which would impose a 1-cent tax for 10 years, raising an estimated $8 billion. The money would go for various transportation projects, with about $1 billion for widening I-70 to six lanes between Wentzville and Blue Springs.

About 10 percent of the money would be earmarked for local transportation needs.

Backers say it is fairer than increasing the state's gasoline tax or income taxes to come up with the money to improve the state's highways and bridges, some of which are in very poor condition.

Opponents disagree. Some of the filibustering senators suggested that proponents instead conduct an initiative-petition drive to get the sales tax hike before voters in 2014. Others contend that the sales tax hike isn't needed since Missouri's state finances have improved, and revenue is increasing.

Lamping – who faces re-election in 2014 in the 24th District -- acknowledged during the filibuster that he was at odds with many other St. Louis area legislators who support the proposal as a way to improve regional and state infrastructure.

The transportation proposal’s backers have included House Speaker Tim Jones, R-Eureka, although he indicated to reporters on Monday that he was pessimistic as to the proposal’s chances this session – largely because of the resistance in the Senate.

Meanwhile, the Senate now is Ground Zero in the battle over Missouri’s liquor laws, an expensive below-the-radar fight for much of the session, and one involving most of the state’s lobbyists.

The issue pits two of the state’s major liquor distributors: St. Louis-based Major Brands versus Glazer’s of Missouri.

Major Brands is seeking approval of a provision – via a bill or amendment – that would overturn a 2012 court decision that tossed out the state’s long-standing interpretation of “franchise” when it comes to alcohol distributors, wholesalers and retailers. Major Brands’ allies, including St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay, say the court decision has produced chaos.

Glazer’s favors the court decision, which it says fosters more competition and is fairer to wholesalers. Glazer’s is part of an opposition coalition called Missourians for Fair Competition.

Major Brands won Round One in the House, which overwhelmingly approved its amendment, 110-48. Glazer’s camp is supporting the Senate filibuster to block passage of the provision.

The Tuesday afternoon filibuster debate centered mainly on the competition versus chaos argument and whether the court ruling was fair. State Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, was a leader of the filibuster.

Both distributors sought to put the best face on Tuesday’s action – or rather, inaction – by the Senate.

“We are pleased with the outpouring of opposition the Missouri Senate expressed today to legislation that would give the state’s largest liquor distributor monopoly protections,” said Ed Rhode, spokesman for Missourians for Fair Competition.

“These senators are true champions of a free market economy because they know that competition will help create jobs and move this state forward. We will continue to stand with these senators against anti-competitive legislation until the closing bell of the legislative session.”

Said Major Brands chief executive Sue McCollum: “We are grateful to the Senate leadership for bringing this vital matter to the floor. This legislation is important to hundreds of retailers, consumers and distributors across the state…. This bill would return our state to the three-tiered liquor control system we have enjoyed since Prohibition. Thousands of Missouri jobs depend on this bill and those workers deserve an up or down vote before the legislature adjourns for the year.”

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.

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