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Government, Politics & Issues

Internal Republican splits and guns dominated Missouri's legislative session

Speaker Tim Jones and Majority Leader John Diehl confer during session's final hours
Tim Bommel | Missouri House Communications | 2013
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This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: With the exception of its laser focus on gun rights, the 97th session of the Missouri General Assembly that ended at 6 p.m. Friday pretty much reflected the recent tradition:

The Republican majority portrayed it an “immense success,’’ the Democrats called it an extremist failure and Gov. Jay Nixon declined to say.

The governor, a Democrat who rarely emphasizes it, demurred when pressed Friday to characterize the last four-and-a-half months that he has shared the state Capitol with 197 legislators or the 160-plus bills now on his desk awaiting action.

A major exception: Nixon’s already public concerns about the tax cut bill (SB253), which cuts business taxes in half over a five-year period and also phases in a smaller reduction in the state’s income tax.

Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey, R-St. Charles, called the measure the state’s “first broad-based tax cut in over 80 years.”

House Speaker Tim Jones, R-Eureka, cited the tax-cut bill as one of the session’s crowning achievements, telling reporters that it was in line with the small-government philosophy of his favorite president, Calvin Coolidge.

Coolidge, said Jones, “did a lot more by doing less. He said, ‘I want the people of America to be able to work less for the government and more for themselves.' ”

But Nixon contended that the bill was a “risky experiment’’ that cut way too much and could damage the state’s economic and educational climate.

The governor said the bill’s cuts would cost more than $800 million a year, “the equivalent of the elimination of all support for public higher education, closing our prisons or shutting down the Department of Mental Health.”

In addition, Nixon said, “there are troubling indications that this bill would jeopardize existing commitments to businesses, economic development incentives that are a basis of long-term investments in our state.”

Republicans contend that the cost to the state’s budget would be far less, and cite the state’s recently growing revenue as the economy has improved. Jones said the tax cut plan fit in with his aim to have a “tax policy fair and low for job creators.”

Laments Medicaid inaction

Nixon also lamented the General Assembly’s decision against expanding the state’s Medicaid rolls, in line with the federal Affordable Care Act. The expansion would have added about 300,000 more Missourians to the rolls and created 24,000 jobs, the health-care industry said.

Gov. Jay Nixon gives introductory remarks at his annual end-of-session press conference.

In separate interviews, Nixon and state Senate Minority Leader Jolie Justus, D-Kansas City, called the inaction “a missed opportunity,’’ especially since the federal government was to pay all of the additional costs for three years and at least 90 percent thereafter.

Republican leaders said the plan represented too much government involvement in health care and contended that the federal government couldn’t afford it. The matter wasn’t brought up during the session’s final weeks.

On most other issues this session, however, the partisan divisions are less clear. 

Nixon offered measured praise for what Republicans billed as this week’s biggest victory: the passage of a long-awaited financial fix to the state’s insolvent Second Injury Fund, a worker’s compensation program for people with pre-existing conditions.

Nixon, previously the state’s attorney general for 16 years, had been an outspoken critic of the 2005 cut in premiums that businesses paid into the fund, which all sides agree contributed to its failing financial condition.

Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey, R-St. Charles, declares the 2013 session "a success."

But Friday, the governor declined to bring up the past, instead saying that while he has yet to examine the bill closely, “they may have gotten to a good solid balance.”

Said Dempsey: “It’s just not a Band-Aid solution. It’s a long-term solution that’s going to restore the fund to solvency and, going forward, give businesses the certainty that they need. And finally, it puts those workplace injuries with the resolution of occupational disease back in the workers’ compensation system and not civil courts. And that’s good for employers and employees in the state of Missouri.”

Senate Minoirty Leader Jolie Justus, D-Kansas City was less enthused about the session.

Meanwhile, Nixon made clear he was disappointed by the General Assembly’s last-minute failure to overhaul the state’s tax-credit programs.  He complained that "tax credit expenditures will continue to consume a large and growing portion of our state budget."

But when it came to the divisions within the GOP’s Senate ranks that killed off a proposed transportation sales tax, the governor offered a dispassionate analysis.

Business interests around the state, especially in St. Louis, had lobbied strongly for the sales tax proposal as a way to rebuild and widen Interstate 70 and improve the state’s crumbling bridges. The plan had called for a one-cent increase in the state’s sales tax for 10 years, dedicated solely to transportation projects, state and local.

Supporters, many of them GOP business leaders, had hoped to win approval easily to put the measure on 2014 ballot. Instead, a Senate filibuster killed it during the last week.

Nixon – who was quiet throughout the legislative fight -- observed that the proposal’s  backers may have put the cart before the horse. “Missourians need to be provided a detailed plan of what their dollars would fund,’’ the governor said. "Then you talk to the public.”

Senate divisions stark – even among Republicans

Republicans hold veto-proof margins in the state House and Senate.

On most issues, House Republicans tended to stick together to pass what they –or the leaders -- wanted. Jones said his chamber’s actions this session exemplified his motto: “promises made, promises kept.”

But some of those promises ran aground in the Senate, because of divisions within the GOP.

That was particularly true when it came to the transportation sales tax and revamping Missouri’s tax credits. This week saw filibusters waged by a small but committed group of Republican state senators, who were out to block other Republicans.

Senate leader Dempsey was philosophical about the standoffs, telling reporters Friday that the situation reminded him of his family’s decades in the restaurant business:  “When you have a great experience, you tell two people. When you have a bad experience, you tell 10.”

Regarding the proposed transportation sales tax, for example, Dempsey recalled that the Senate had passed practically the same bill in March. It was only when the measure came back, after the House had passed it with a few changes, that some of the Senate opponents went public.

“I had conversations with the three members who were opposing it this past week,” the leader said. “And their response to me was, ‘Well, we thought the House was going to kill it.’ “

One of the filibuster leaders was state Sen. John Lamping, R-Ladue, who acknowledged early in the week that he found himself at odds with many fellow Republican legislators and St. Louis area business leaders.

In an interview, Lamping said that he agreed with the sales tax’s backers that something needed to be done to improve the state’s highways, roads and bridges. “We just disagree how to pay for it,” he said.

Lamping explained that he thought the sales tax proposal was too large and other ways should be explored to fund the state’s transportation needs. One alternative, he suggested, might be to raise the sales tax by a smaller amount and then lower personal income tax rate.

During the talks with the bill’s chief backers, Lamping said he told them, “Look, I can get you $200 million, $300 million or $400 million. They don’t want $200 million or $400 million. They want $800 million.”

Lamping confirmed that he had received pressure – in the form of robocalls and phone calls to his office – after he led the first filibuster Tuesday night. But he said those tactics did little to change his mind.

“I’ve been threatened about what will happen to me as a result to this. Guess what? I don’t really care,” Lamping added. “Maybe it means I lose chairmanships, maybe it means my bills don’t get heard. I don’t care. I’m here to do the same thing over and over again – listen to the issue. And bring forward really good ideas.”

Lamping also figured prominently in the Senate’s other action, to kill off the tax credit agreement that had been forged Thursday with Senate and House Republican leaders.

That deal had called for reducing the state’s two largest tax credit programs – the historic and low-income housing credits  -- and adding some other tax credit programs, such as the so-called “angel credit’’ for entrepreneurs willing to invest in new companies or technologies.

Lamping was among several state senators who long have sought to cut the historic and low-income housing programs dramatically. But they also want to trim or eliminate others and block any new ones. Their view is that government shouldn’t be manipulating the marketplace.

But Lamping may have paid a price on Friday when one of his key bills bit the dust shortly before adjournment. The bill, SB210, focused on the “Common Core’’ national education initiative that has become controversial among conservatives, who contend it represents governmental overreach. Backers say the aim is simply to promote student achievement in core subjects.

Lamping’s bill had passed the Senate weeks ago. It won approval Friday in the House as well, but an amendment had been added – which meant that the bill needed another Senate vote on Friday. It didn’t get it.

Some lobbyists privately credited education groups who had been pressuring the Senate. But others said some senators were irked with Lamping over the transportation tax and tax-credit fights and decided to let his bill die.

Jones ignores senator’s jab, promotes Senate ties

It was another state senator, Republican Brad Lager of Savannah, who snagged Friday’s headlines, when he launched the afternoon filibuster against the tax credit programs – and accused House Republican leaders of being “corrupt.”

Lager contended that the House-approved tax credit package was too friendly to developers, some of whom are donors to House GOP leaders.

“I don’t know how we get to this resolution when the folks that we’re negotiating with put the special interests above the people,” Lager said. “Just because we can’t get the House to move to where we are doesn’t mean that we should cave.”

Jones said later that he wasn’t going to respond to such comments and emphasized that he had sought to improve what in previous sessions had been strained – or even hostile -- relations between House and Senate GOP leaders.

Jones said that he and Dempsey plan to travel the state together in a few weeks to promote key pieces of passed legislation now on Nixon’s desk and to lobby the public for him to sign them.

A highlight, for Dempsey and Jones, was this week’s approval of the Second Injury Fund bill.

“Because we showed leadership this year,” Dempsey said. “There are people who can talk about wanting to support a solution for the Second Injury Fund. But the people I heard talking about it last fall weren’t the people in the room working it out. And we have a vision for this state. And we expressed what that was. And we worked toward those goals. I think that’s what the people expect from their elected leaders. And that’s what we provided."

Nixon will make cuts in Department of Motor Vehicles

For weeks, though, the House and Senate were in an uproar over the discovery that the state Department of Revenue had been scanning and retaining personal documents – such as birth certificates – when people applied for drivers licenses or sought to have their concealed-carry permit added as an “endorsement’’ on their drivers licenses.

Members of the Missouri House toss paper into the air to mark the end of the 2013 legislative session.
Credit Jo Mannies | St. Louis Beacon | 2013
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Members of the Missouri House toss paper into the air to mark the end of the 2013 legislative session.

A Stoddard County gun-owner has sued the state over the practice, prompting legislators to call for investigations and to demand a halt to the scanning.

Nixon has ordered an end to scanning concealed-carry permits but says the scanning and retention of other personal documents were conducted to prevent the fraudulent issuance of drivers licenses. Since last fall, a firm in Georgia creates the licenses and mails them out.

Jones has set up a committee made up of legislators and law-enforcement officials to look into the issue, while Senate Appropriations Committee chairman Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, persuaded the General Assembly to cut the budget of the state’s Division of Motor Vehicles by one-third for the coming fiscal year.

Schaefer’s aim was to force the Nixon administration to end the scanning, and return to the old system of having the licenses produced at the roughly 180 local fee offices. Schaefer said he’d seek to restore the rest of the appropriation next session.

Nixon said Friday that he will follow through with his threat to make cuts in the division’s workforce, and in services, to reflect the reduced allocation. Schaefer has maintained that’s not needed.

“We’re not going to switch to a Washington-style system of continuing resolutions,’’ the governor said, referring to Congress’ preferred way to finance the federal government for the past few years without a budget. “I’m not going to switch to a two-thirds-of-a-year budget.”

“The budget passed, it’s a yearly budget,’’ Nixon said. “In this situation, it’s going to include necessary trims.”

Nixon added that he hoped to do so without severely affecting services to the public.

Four gun-rights bills awaiting Nixon's decision

The temporary scanning of the concealed-carry permits contributed to a heightened focus by the General Assembly on gun rights.  At least four bills on gun rights are now sitting on Nixon’s desk.

One seeks to bar the enforcement of most federal gun restrictions in Missouri, while another seeks to allow state employees to store guns in their cars while parked in state parking lots.

A fifth gun-related measure almost won passage, which would have been a 2014 ballot measure asking voters to approval a constitutional amendment to protect all Missourians’ rights to bear arms.  Opponents contended the measure was so broadly worded that it would have prevented law enforcement from arresting criminals caught with firearms.

The bill died Friday afternoon in the Senate.

The governor, who owns guns and is a hunter, didn’t specifically address the gun measures or signal whether he will sign or veto any of them. But he did complain that “all this unfinished business is particularly stark in the light of unnecessary things that the legislature did find to address, like (bans against) Sharia law and something called Agenda 21.”

Agenda 21 is a United Nations' initiative to promote sustainable development. Some U.S. conservatives oppose it as improper governmental intrusion.

On such subjects, the governor's comments were in line with some of the observations of House Minority Leader Jake Hummel, D-St. Louis.

Hummel contended that General Assembly's focus on such matters contributed to what he viewed as a failed session. “At the start of session, House Republicans touted a Triple E plan of economic development, energy and education,” Hummel said.

“The Triple E agenda House Republicans delivered was extremism, extremism and extremism. If you fear drones, the United Nations and working families with rights, then it was a great year. If you think creating jobs, improving public education and maintaining a stable and functioning state government are important, then not so much.”

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