Missouri lawmakers get down to business, send Greitens bills on REAL ID, zoo tax
Missouri lawmakers solved the puzzle over federally mandated IDs on Thursday night, sending Republican Gov. Eric Greitens a bill that would ease travelers’ and military members’ worries come January.
It was one of several pieces of legislation that reached the finish line ahead of the 6 p.m. Friday deadline for the 2017 session. Here’s a look at Thursday’s action:
Since Greitens has said he’ll sign the REAL ID bill sent to him by the House on a 117-39 vote, Missouri removed itself from the short list of states that hadn’t complied with the 2005 federal law meant to combat terrorism.
Starting Jan. 22, 2018, all U.S. residents must present REAL ID-compliant identification to board airplanes or get into federal facilities, including courthouses and military bases.
The bill that passed addressed Missouri Republicans’ concerns about privacy, allowing the state to issue two types of licenses based on the applicant’s wish: compliant or noncompliant. It also makes it a crime to misuse or unlawfully distribute a driver’s data and bans storing Social Security numbers in a database that the state or federal government has access to, with exceptions.
Although the House Democratic Caucus emphasized its support for REAL ID, there was some debate before the vote on a provision added by the Senate this week because the free, state-funded voter IDs won’t be REAL ID-compliant. Democrats believe that part of the bill is discriminates against the poor, who will have to come up with the money and documents on their own to get a compliant REAL ID, even if they don't drive.
Had it not passed, both Greitens and Lt. Gov. Mike Parson had threatened to call a special session.
St. Louis Zoo tax
St. Louis and St. Louis County will be able to ask voters to raise sales taxes no higher than one-eighth of a cent to support the St. Louis Zoo under the bill passed by the Senate 31-2.
The zoo bill’s chief House sponsor was state Rep. Marsha Haefer, a Republican from Oakville.
In an interview, she said, “I have seen for myself some of the infrastructure problems that exist in the St. Louis Zoo that there just isn’t money to fix right now.”
And Democratic Sen. Gina Walsh, who sponsored the original Senate bill, said she didn’t have any issues with the House’s amendments.
“There’s lots of exhibits that need to be repaired, and if you ever get an opportunity to do the underground tour there’s actually birds in cages, beautiful birds in cages, in wet, damp old basements,” she said.
Opponents of the bill said another sales tax would place an extra burden on homeowners, whose property taxes already help support the zoo as part of the Zoo-Museum District. The zoo, which opened in 1904, received about $21 million in 2015 from that property tax.
Currently, the Zoo receives no direct sales tax money from city or county residents.
Some lawsuit payments will be limited under a bill that passed 98-53 in the House on Thursday afternoon 98-53. It was sent to Greitens.
Under the bill, which drew some heated debate and was sought by the Missouri Chamber of Commerce, any payments that a defendant or insurer has already paid to cover a victim’s actual medical costs will be deducted from the jury or judge’s final judgment.
Opponents said the bill was poorly written and penalizes victims who have insurance by reducing their settlements by the amount insurers have paid for medical costs.
But backers of the bill asserted that it would reduce insurance premiums in the long run, as well as reduce attorneys’ fees. They also say the bill does not affect punitive damages, such as special payments awarded victims for pain and suffering.
Number of bills sent to the governor Thursday: 15
Aside from REAL ID, zoo tax and lawsuit payment bills, Greitens will have the chance to sign to law bills that:
- Allow banks to take possession of buildings and to lease them to local governments;
- Expand the type of documents that can be used by veterans to get a special veterans' designation on their driver's licenses;
- Get rid of current law that bars any person found guilty of a federal misdemeanor from running for office (part of a large bill on government and election matters);
- Repeal an expiration date on tax refund contributions for organ donations;
- Change various public-employee pension systems and allow the forfeiture of a public pension benefit if the person is convicted of a felony. Also vests members of the state employee pension system (aka MOSERS) after five years instead of 10;
- Revise laws governing public accountants, including lowering minimum age to 18 from 21 for taking the CPA test;
- Set up a nonprofit corporation called “Missouri Works,” which will set up four high schools for adults age 21 and over around the state;
- Mandate that the state Department of Health and Senior Services set up a health care directives registry (part of a broad health care bill);
- Set up a new statewide licensing system for electrical contractors;
- Designate a part of Interstate 55 in Jefferson County as Thomas Surdyke Memorial Highway after the West Point cadet who died last year trying to save someone who was drowning;
- Rename seven bridges around the state (including the Surdyke bridge).
Blue Alert system
What started out as an immigration bill is now the legislature’s main anti-crime measure of the 2017 session and in the hands of the House.
The original legislation it would have made it a felony for someone who had been deported from the U.S. to re-enter Missouri and commit a violent crime. But the measure that passed the Senate by a 32-0 vote Thursday includes 20 provisions — including the creation of a Blue Alert system to send out notices via broadcast and social media whenever a law enforcement officer is assaulted.
There’s a second Blue Alert bill, for the alert system alone, that was sent to the House late Thursday. If either passes the House, it’ll go to Greitens, who’s said the system is a major priority.
It’s also been part of the fight between Greitens’ agenda-pushing nonprofit A New Missouri, Inc., and Republican Sen. Rob Schaaf of St. Joseph, to the point that the nonprofit’s online attack ads against Schaaf called him out on not supporting it. But Schaaf also had sponsored a bill to make nonprofits like Greitens’ reveal their donors.
But Schaaf said on the Senate floor Thursday, waving a copy of the bill in his hand, that he’d always been in support of the Blue Alert provision.
“Here it is, right here!” he shouted. “I’m supporting Blue Alert, and the governor’s secret dark money committee, A New Missouri, when they put my (cell) number on (their ad), they were wrong because I’m supporting it!”
Other provisions in the omnibus bill include tougher penalties for certain crimes if the victim is a police officer, and tougher penalties for such things as trespassing, property damage, and leaving the scene of an accident.
Republican and Democratic members of the Missouri Senate held a news conference Thursday night calling on the House pass a bill aimed at reversing cuts to in-home and nursing home care for low-income Missouri residents.
The Senate passed legislation this week that would take unused money in state accounts to prevent about 8,000 people from losing health care services.
"We know it works and we know it will solve the problem," said Sen. Ryan Silvey, R-Kansas City.
House Budget Chairman Scott Fitzpatrick, R-Shell Knob, has panned the Senate plan. Among other things, he said it's a short-term solution to a longer-term problem. He's pushed for paring down the "circuit breaker" tax credit, which provides property tax relief for low-income seniors. Fitzpatrick and other House Republicans want to get rid of the credit for renters.
Winds of change
Republican Rep. Kevin Engler, a former state senator, warned House members that their changed bills may die should they keep tacking on amendments.
“Ask yourself, is this worth killing the bill?” said Engler from Farmington. An example was the zoo bill, to which a couple of unrelated fiscal amendments were added.
Engler's warning also reflects his first-hand experience with the Senate getting caught up in filibusters or Democratic-led slowdowns in the final days or hours of a legislative session. The result often has been the collateral deaths of dozens of amended bills sent over by the House.
- The House gave standing ovation to Rep. Don Rone, R-New Madrid, for his impassioned plea for an amendment that allows the state’s Public Service Commission to negotiate a lower electrical rate for the new owners of Noranda, the aluminum-smelting plant that recently shut down in southeast Missouri, taking 900 jobs with it. Rone singled out three senators who have blocked the bill on the issue. His amendment to a general local-government bill passed 148-2.
- The Missouri Senate sent the House a multifaceted pension bill, which includes a provision allowing a vested state employee to take a lump sum as opposed to a lifelong pension after they retire. Cosby Republican Sen. Dan Hegeman’s bill would also change the requirement for normal retirement eligibility. Instead of having to work for state government for ten years, Hegeman’s bill would lower the vesting period to five years.
- Thursday was "Pie Day," an annual tradition meant to ease tensions amid the hectic final days of the legislative session. The pies, brought in from the Rolling Pin in Howard county, were paid for by the Missouri Truckers Association.
Krissy Lane contributed to this report.