Missouri Lawmakers Return From Legislative Spring Break, Busy Eight Weeks Ahead
After an active first few months of the 2021 legislative session, lawmakers are returning Monday to Jefferson City from a weeklong spring break with several priorities on the agenda of the Republican supermajority.
“It’s been what we would consider a good first half,” said House Speaker Rob Vescovo, R-Arnold. “We’ve gotten a lot of things done.”
Vescovo said the week before lawmakers left town, they were able to get several measures through the lower chamber. One in particular is an online sales tax, with the Senate also passing its version. Not only has this been a work in progress for several years, but it’s been a top priority of Gov. Mike Parson.
“I’m just thankful they passed it,” Parson said. “In some form, some fashion.”
Parson has not indicated which proposal he prefers, but the Senate sponsor, Andrew Koenig, R-Manchester, said he believes he has the better bill. Both versions include slight income tax cuts, and the Senate version adds a tax credit for low-income families.
The upper chamber also passed a measure to incrementally increase the state’s gas tax to fund road and bridge work. Senate President Pro Tem Dave Schatz, R-Sullivan, said that the state has more than $800 million in unfunded transportation needs and that this is a way to ensure the highway system is safe.
“Increasing the state’s gas tax was critical, but we also made it refundable,” said Schatz, referring to a provision that allows a rebate if motorists file receipts. “We are sensitive to individual Missourians’ needs.”
Creating a balanced budget
The session has reached the unofficial halfway point, and there’s still a lot of work to be done. The only constitutional requirement for lawmakers is passing a balanced state budget. House Budget Chair Cody Smith, R-Carthage, said the budget is on schedule to be passed over to the Senate in April.
After expediting the process due to the coronavirus last year, Smith said it’s been nice to go through a more “traditional budget process.” However, with the American Rescue Plan, the state is set to receive more than $2.5 billion in federal COVID-19 relief. But Smith says the money, including the rules tied to it, may not get to Missouri before the House has an opportunity to look at where it should be appropriated.
“That’s challenging to fit into the ongoing budget process,” Smith said. “This could all unfold and the funds could start to come to the state as the House is passing the budget to the Senate. We may not have the ability to appropriate those dollars in the original version of the House budget, which makes us pivot to other ways of doing that.”
One of the more contentious issues related to the budget this year is Medicaid expansion. After voters approved a constitutional amendment in August, it’s now on the shoulders of the legislature to implement the program. Smith segregated the $1.6 billion bill from other spending measures because he said it deserved robust discussion.
“It is a large expansion of a new program that is a very complicated policy matter that I believe deserves to be discussed and debated on its own merit, aside from what we already do in Missouri’s array of social services programs,” Smith said.
It’s a move that’s raised concerns among Democrats in the Statehouse. House Minority Leader Crystal Quade, D-Springfield, said she worries this is a way for Republicans, who have vocally advocated against expansion, to avoid funding it.
“This is not something that happens regularly, where a specific budget item is pulled out as a standalone bill,” she said. “Which means we’re going to have an up-and-down vote on Medicaid expansion funding in the House. Obviously, we’re very concerned about that because we’ve had a bunch of up-and-down votes on Medicaid in the past and Republicans have never supported it, so why would this one be any different?”
With the federal stimulus package, Missouri could also receive more than a billion dollars specifically for expansion. That’s in addition to the 90/10 federal match already guaranteed. But Sen. Barbara Washington, D-Kansas City, said Republicans argue the additional dollars will only cover the program for a couple of years, and she’s still expecting pushback from Republicans.
“We’re going to continue to be challenged,” Washington said. “But I don’t like to leave any money on the table that’s not ours. I don’t want to leave that federal money that we’ve been leaving all these years on the table where we could not only be using that to expand Medicaid, reduce our responsibility financially, but also help those 200,000 people in our state.”
Parson has advocated for the legislature to fund the program, but some lawmakers argue that since there was no funding mechanism attached to the constitutional amendment, they’re not required to. Republicans are also encouraging work requirements for the program.
Another major push from conservatives this year is education reform. Senate Bill 55 is a massive charter school expansion package that’s been working its way through the Senate and has garnered opposition outside the Capitol. The legislation seems to be stalled in closed-door negotiations, but Senate Majority Leader Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, is throwing his legislative weight behind it and said it’ll be discussed on the floor soon.
“We’ve been working behind the scenes with folks that just have some different opinions about how we should move forward, Rowden said. “There are numerous mechanisms for us to get some education reform done. SB 55 very well could be the mechanism, and I fully expect to bring that up and get that passed over to the House.”
Expanding sports gaming was also expected to be a priority for some, and while it’s been discussed, it hasn’t garnered steam as expected. Schatz said it’s still an important issue but one that comes second to illegal gaming machines.
“I’m willing to have a conversation about the expansion of legal gaming, but we first have to get rid of the illegal gaming,” Schatz said.
One bipartisan effort that seems to be making its way across the finish line is forgiving federal unemployment overpayments received by some Missourians during the height of the pandemic. Many Democrats would like to see the state portion of those payments forgiven, which also has support from Republicans and is likely to be a discussion now that the measure is in the Senate.
As for the Democrats, with a superminority in both chambers, their top priority besides Medicaid expansion is stopping measures that they say will make it harder for voters. Already passing through the House is a measure to require voter ID and another increasing the signature threshold for initiative petitions.
Lawmakers are scheduled for adjournment on May 14.