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Government, Politics & Issues

As clock ticks down, Missouri General Assembly scrambles to pass - or kill - bills

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 16, 2013 - When the Missouri House convened Thursday, legislators looked up to see a spooky sight: a life-size human “body” lying atop the chamber’s huge skylight.

The “body” turned out to be a paper cutout placed on the roof as a joke.

But it also offered a perfect analogy for all the bills, serious or not, that will die at 6 p.m. Friday, when the General Assembly adjourns for the year.

Although some major proposals, such as Medicaid expansion, have been dead for a while, legislators and lobbyists are scrambling during the session's final days to keep some measures alive.

With little time left, the prospects appear strongest for only a handful of items. Among them:

  • Restoration of money for First Steps, an early-childhood education program for developmentally disabled children that got caught in a power play between Gov. Jay Nixon and Republican legislative leaders over an unrelated tax credit for elderly and disabled renters.
  • Passage of a Medicaid bill, SB127, that makes several changes, including reauthorization of “Ticket to Work,’’ an existing state program for disabled adults that offers special personal care so they can work. This is distinct from the controversial Medicaid expansion.

Both measures are in a conference committee after the Senate approved them. House action is needed to send them to Nixon.
The General Assembly has been abuzz since Thursday with new developments on the tax-credit front.

Unexpectedly, House leaders appeared to succeed in resurrecting some economic development proposals feared dead, including tax credit changes sought by St. Louis area business leaders. St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay had  lobbied for many of them in the Capitol on Wednesday.

(Update) Friday morning, the House gave final approval to a House-Senate conference committee deal on the credits. The hope is that the Senate would follow suit, and not get caught in a filibuster. (End update)

Both chambers have struggled in recent years to amend the state's tax credits, but the House and the Senate have been unable to agree on caps for the popular historic preservation and low-income housing tax credits.

House Speaker Tim Jones, R-Eureka, was leading the last-ditch tax credit push, publicly laying out acceptable cuts to the two popular programs, if the Senate would go along.

The compromise approved  by the House would reduce the historic tax credit's cap to $90 million a year, from the current $140 million, and reduce the low-income credit to $110 million a year from what had been $190 million a year.

Jones loudly called for "an up or down vote'' in the Senate on a proposed compromise tax-credit plan.

Lamping lauded, lambasted over filibuster

(Update) But Friday morning saw the definite death of a bill -- sought by some business leaders, including those in the St. Louis area -- that would ask Missouri voters to approve a one-cent sales-tax hike for transportation projects.

The bill had been filibustered for hours Tuesday night. An attempt to resurrect the bill Friday died when the opposing senators made clear would filibuster it again. (End update)

State Sen. Mike Kehoe’s proposed constitutional amendment initially had seemed to be heading easily to the ballot but was stymied after senators, including state Sen. John Lamping, R-Ladue, launched a successful filibuster.

Lobbyists reported that Lamping's office phones rang all day Thursday with calls from angry business leaders in the St. Louis area. Even so, the senator and his allies were preparing for another filibuster late Thursday, if the sales-tax proposal comes up again.

But in the end, the Senate adjourned early in the evening, signaling that the sales-tax proposal is likely dead this session.

National tax-cut guru Grover Norquist issued a press release Thursday afternoon that lauded Lamping and called for him to stand firm against the transportation tax.

Lamping, by the way, also is a critic of Missouri's tax credit programs.

The Senate appears cool to many of the other measures debated at length Wednesday and Thursday in the Missouri House, including bills or amendments dealing with judicial changes, local-government issues and perceived food stamp fraud.

One House bill, passed Wednesday, sought to ask voters to impose restrictions on how much state government could spend, allowing only a 1.5 percent increase annually, compared to the previous year.

A legislative hearing was set for Friday on the measure, even though critics believe the Senate won't vote on the ballot proposal before adjournment.

The biggest success story for the week, and likely for the session, was Thursday morning's final passage by the House of a bill revamping the state's Second Injury Fund and workers compensation program. The Senate approved the bill early Wednesday, and it's now on Nixon's desk.

The governor signed a half-dozen bills Thursday, but none of them was  considered major.

Last-ditch rally to promote Medicaid expansion

Neither chamber was spending any of this session’s final hours addressing a major health-care issue, backed by Nixon and most state medical groups, to expand the state’s Medicaid rolls as sought by the federal Affordable Care Act. The federal government has promised to cover all expansion costs for the first three years and at least 90 percent thereafter.

Republican legislative leaders oppose the expansion, contending government should not be so involved in health care and citing the federal debt. Supporters of the expansion say it would add about 300,000 uninsured people to Missouri’s rolls, protect rural hospitals and would create 24,000 jobs.

Thursday night, Medicaid expansion supporters gathered in front of the state Capitol to lament the General Assembly's inaction.

Their backdrop wasn't subtle: Capitol steps covered with 1,500 lit luminaires, representing estimates from medical experts of the number of uninsured Missourians who may die annually without the Medicaid expansion.

"It's a mood of deep lamentation,'' said the Rev. John Bennett of Jefferson City, among several dozen clergy, healthcare activists and supportive legislators who participated in the event.

State Rep. Jeanne Kirkton, D-Webster Groves, compared the General Assembly's  decision to "an ocean liner coming through and it's full of life preservers, and people are in the water...they're drowning, and we keep sailing on through."

Key legislation likely to die this session

Besides Medicaid expansion, some bills that haven’t made it to the finish line include:

  • Legislation to redefine the word “franchise’’ when it comes to alcohol distributors and suppliers produced a whirlwind of activity this session. The issue created a cottage industry of sorts for lobbyists and political consultants. It also attracted the attention of St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay. The changes were sought by a St. Louis-based liquor distributor, Major Brands, and opposed by a rival distributor, Glazer's of Missouri.
  • Major changes to teacher tenure and evaluations. Several times during the session, the Missouri House attempted to pass legislation to change teacher tenure and evaluation. Those efforts faltered, but they may be revived through an initiative petition. 
  • So-called “right to work” legislation. The Missouri Chamber of Commerce had made a priority of this legislation barring unions and employers from requiring workers to pay union dues. But the bill's prospects were always dicey, especially since several Republican lawmakers received labor endorsements in last year's election campaign.

Although both parties talked before the session about making changes to campaign finance and ethics laws, those efforts went nowhere.

For instance, House Democrats also put forward a wide-ranging ethics proposal that includes re-instituting campaign contribution limits and curbing lobbyist gifts. That effort made little headway in the GOP-dominated General Assembly.

And an effort to make politically active nonprofit groups disclose their donors got lost in the shuffle during Missouri’s legislative session. House Rep. Todd Richardson, R-Poplar Bluff, had pitched the idea late last year but told the Beacon earlier this month it appeared dead this session.

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