GOP infighting may complicate Missouri's 2018 legislative session
Heightened tensions between Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens and fellow Republicans who control the General Assembly will likely add drama when the 2018 legislative session begins next Wednesday.
Because 2018 is an election year, it’s long been assumed that lawmakers will avoid divisive topics that could upset voters. But that might not be possible this time.
Already, state Sen. Gary Romine, a Republican from Farmington, has promised to block the governor’s nominees to the state Board of Education, because of their role in ousting Missouri Commissioner of Education Margie Vandeven. The governor wants someone in the job who’s more friendly to charter schools and public aid to private schools.
“They didn’t go through the confirmation process – they’re not qualified to serve on the board,” Romine said of Greitens’ appointees. “And they’ve taken a vote that indicates that they are going to be more of a puppet of the governor than an independent voice for the State Board of Education.”
The governor has yet to respond publicly to such threats, or even to say much about his legislative objectives in 2018, other than to repeatedly affirm that he’s committed to his 2016 campaign message to “do different.’’
Other Republican lawmakers contend that while friction between the executive and legislative branches is inevitable, compromise is not out of the question.
“If you think the governor is being immature or acting outside the confines of how he should be operating in this relationship, I don’t think it makes sense to match that with that,” said Sen. Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia. “We’re going to have to work together. There’s going to have to be some adults in the room. And we’re going to have to say ‘look, our constituents sent us here to do big things — and we have a generational sort of opportunity.”
Legislative sessions are historically difficult to predict. But legislators’ prefiled bills offer a hint of their primary focus for the coming months:
In the first weeks of the 2017 session, the GOP quickly acted to approve a long-sought “right to work’’ law that would bar unions and employers from requiring all workers to pay dues or fees.
But unions succeeded in a signature drive over the summer that temporarily blocks the law until voters can weigh in. That vote is a set for November 2018, unless the General Assembly acts soon to move the referendum vote to August 2018.
House Speaker Pro Tem Elijah Haahr, R-Springfield, said there’s a strong possibility lawmakers may move the date of the “right to work” vote.
“Personally, I think it’s better on an August ballot,” Haahr said. “Even though you’ll have some primaries in the state … the big races will be in November. An issue that big that gets lost in the barrage of tens of millions of dollars that get spent in a [U.S. Senate] race, millions of dollars being spent in an auditor’s race, all these other legislative and senate races, you lose the chance to have a really frank conversation with the voters of Missouri about how you want to move forward on labor issues.”
Republican legislative leaders also may take on other labor issues. Among the bills already for 2018 are ones that would bar labor unions from deducting dues from public employees’ paychecks without obtaining annual approval.
Other bills would get rid of the state’s longstanding “prevailing wage’’ law, that requires local governments and school districts to pay non-union workers the same amount as unionized employees for public works projects.
Three years after approving a state tax cut, some Republicans are seeking to lower state income tax rates once again.
But their push comes as that earlier tax cut, approved in 2014, is just now going into effect – and potentially adding to state government’s financial problems.
As a result, some backers of income-tax cuts are calling for curbs in various tax breaks – notably tax credits – and an increase in the state’s fuel tax, among the nation’s lowest.
Sen. Bill Eigel, R-Weldon Spring, and Rep. Travis Fitzwater, R-Callaway County, are sponsoring similar bills to cut the state's income tax and curb tax credits. Fitzwater said it's a good time to revisit the tax-cut debate. “We have a budget that continues to grow; we have record numbers in our budget,” he said.
But House Minority leader Gail McCann Beatty, a Democrat from Kansas City, is among the tax cut critics.
“To be able to say that all of a sudden our budget issues are going to be resolved and we’re going to have plenty of money for additional tax cuts – we don’t know that for sure, yet,” she said.
Health care cuts
To balance the state’s current budget, Greitens made some painful health care cuts to programs that helped low-income elderly and disabled residents.
Among other things, Greitens signed a budget that caused about 8,000 disabled and elderly Missourians to lose state in-home services aimed at keeping them out of nursing homes. He vetoed a bill that sought a short-term solution by using unspent money in various state agencies’ bank accounts. The governor called that effort a “unconstitutional gimmick.”
State Rep. Deb Lavender, a Democrat from Kirkwood, crafted the ill-fated bill, and said she may press for it again.
“There are funds in health, mental, health, and social services that are sitting there,” Lavender said. “What better use to use these funds than to put it towards our seniors and people with disabilities living at home just needing a little bit of help with their home care.”
Republicans on the House and Senate Budget Committees have also signaled that they’re willing to reverse the in-home care cuts. But House budget leaders stressed that they want to reduce a property tax credit known as the “circuit breaker” to renters to restore the services.
Both parties will likely try again to ban lobbyist gifts of free meals, travel, and entertainment to elected officials. That’s been a top priority for the governor and House Speaker Todd Richardson, a Republican from Poplar Bluff.
Lawmakers may also try to address some of the perceived shortcomings of a recently-enacted constitutional amendment, known as Amendment 2, that put campaign donation limits in place for legislators and statewide officials. But that measure allows municipal and county candidates to collect contributions of unlimited size. And several Republican legislators want to place limits on those types of donations.
“If we’re going to have standards, which we do have now because of Amendment 2, let’s make that applicable to all of our candidates,” said state Rep. Justin Alferman, R-Hermann.
Some lawmakers also seek to propose changes to make it more difficult for candidates to coordinate with political action committees. Rep. Gina Mitten, D-Richmond Heights, said it’s especially troubling that candidates can actively encourage donors to send money to a political action committee — as long as the PAC doesn’t explicitly say it will spend money on that candidate’s behalf.
“If the majority party in the General Assembly wants to stick its head in the stand to address this problem, ultimately it’s going to be addressed for them,” Mitten said. “The problem is it will be addressed in a way that doesn’t necessarily work. And that should be the lesson to Amendment 2: The people are going to make it happen one way or another.”
Lawmakers may attempt to require politically active nonprofit groups to identify their donors. Greitens has ties to one such nonprofit, called A New Missouri, that has paid for ads or robocalls attacking some fellow Republicans in the General Assembly. Nonprofits with unknown funding sources have also donated to efforts to raise Missouri’s minimum wage and to oppose a real of the state’s “right to work” law.
Greitens will likely again push for a longer waiting period before former office holders can become lobbyists. In 2017, he unsuccessfully called for a “cooling-off period” that would equal the amount of time a person in question served in office.
Low Income Housing
Some fellow Republicans, including Lt. Gov. Mike Parson, may seek to revisit the governor’s action to eliminate state low-income housing credits. Greitens succeeded in accumulating enough votes on the Missouri Housing Development Commission.
The governor and his allies say the tax-credit program helps developers more than low-income people. By not issuing state low-income housing tax credits in 2018, critics of the incentive may have leverage to make the legislature make changes to the program.
“Forty-two cents of every dollar actually goes to housing,” said Jason Crowell, a former Republican state senator whom Greitens appointed to the Missouri Housing Development Commission. “As I’ve said over and over again, only politicians spending other people’s money think it’s a good deal to spend a dollar for only 42 cents worth of bread.”
Backers such as Parson maintain that the low-income credits are often the only way to attract low-income housing in rural Missouri.
“People out there that’s affected by this, at the end of the day, we’re not giving them much of a solution for the problem,” Parson said. “We made a decision today on no factual basis, whatsoever … more politics than factual.”
Abortion, guns and pot
Several prefiled bills would curb abortion rights, or outlaw the medical procedure in most cases. Others would expand gun rights. Both issues often have been popular ones for conservative lawmakers who believe they galvanize the GOP’s socially-conservative wing.
Bills related to gun rights include a proposal to allow people to carry firearms into churches or other houses of worship without first obtaining approval from the institution’s religious leaders.
At least two St. Louis lawmakers – Reps. Peter Merideth and Karla May – have prefiled bills to ease or eliminate bans on the sale, production or use of small amounts of marijuana. Their proposals come as some groups are seeking to get measures on the November 2018 ballot that would legalize marijuana for medicinal use.
St. Louis Public Radio's Jason Rosenbaum contributed information for this story.
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