Missouri lawmakers gaveled themselves into session on Wednesday, marking what could be a legislative session full of complex policy — with the usual politics thrown in the mix.
As was the case in the past two years, Republicans hold commanding majorities in the House and Senate. And the leaders of both chambers have similar priorities, including paring down business and lawsuit regulations.
“Our message that Missouri is open for business cannot just be lip service coming from this building,” said House Speaker Elijah Haahr, R-Springfield. “The policies we pass must focus on cultivating employers and not controlling their businesses.”
Senate President Pro Tem Dave Schatz added that the Legislature is primed to pass “a fiscally responsible and balanced budget” and to “ensure that our shared priorities, like education and infrastructure, receive the investment that they deserve.”
“We face an economy that is very different than the one many of us grew up in,” said Schatz, R-Sullivan. “Advanced, practical skills are the ticket to the middle class and economic prosperity. We need to invest in the citizens of our state by offering training opportunities, regardless of age and experience. And any Missourian that wants to better themselves through hard work and education should have their state as an ally.”
Both Schatz and Gov. Mike Parson have cited improving workforce development as a priority. And both also expressed interest in finding a funding source to pay for early child education. Actually figuring out how to fund such an initiative may be tricky, although members of both parties have talked about a tax on out-of-state internet purchases or sports betting as an option.
There’s also some uncertainty about how to tackle another one of Parson’s priorities: Finding more money for roads and bridges. Voters rejected a gas-tax increase last year, as well as a sales-tax hike in 2014.
“It’s inherent upon us that we do everything we can,” Schatz said. “Again, as we see this deferred maintenance is going to continue to cost more at the end of the day. But I think it’s going to be challenging. There could be some revenue streams that we could look at — and have those conversations that may help us fill that gap.”
Haahr also said during his speech he wanted to pursue an overhaul of what he called “a broken criminal-justice system.” That included overhauling sentencing guidelines.
His Democratic counterpart, House Minority Leader Crystal Quade, D-Springfield, said her caucus is ready to work with Republicans on the issue.
“Democrats have been talking about criminal-justice reform for decades,” Quade said. “And so, frankly, I’m really excited to hear Republicans talking about this now and making it a priority.”
Ballot measure fight
Where Republicans and Democrats may diverge is on efforts to alter or repeal voter-approved initiatives, such as a new state legislative-redistricting system.
The measure, known as Clean Missouri, turns much of the power to draw House and Senate districts over to a state demographer. That person must draw a map that emphasizes partisan fairness and competitiveness. But Republican critics contend the process is aimed at chipping away at the Republican supermajorities — and will create districts that stretch awkwardly across wide swaths of terrain.
Senate Majority Leader Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, called the new system “terrible policy.” But neither House nor Senate leaders have put forth a concrete proposal that could go before statewide voters in 2020.
“We have to make sure what we’re doing is not trying to undo the will of the voters, but there are some dynamics and changes there that may need to occur in order to make that more clear,” Schatz said.
Quade said a big priority of her caucus will be to protect voter-approved measures, including the new redistricting system and a minimum-wage hike.
“I am committed to upholding the will of the people,” Quade said. “The Democratic caucus, obviously as stated, we have a lot of varying opinions on issues. And I think that’s important. We represent all parts of the state and constituents from all over. But of all things, we have respect for our voters.”
What Quade was alluding to was how some African-American Democrats have been critical of the new redistricting proposal. Even though there’s language in Clean Missouri aimed at protecting minority representation, some black elected officials contend it wouldn’t stop the demographer from reducing the percentage of African-Americans in House and Senate districts — and allowing a white candidate to win.
Senate Minority Leader Gina Walsh, who represents a minority-majority district, acknowledged that there’s internal debate within her caucus about how the new redistricting system will affect black representation in the House and Senate. But she echoed Quade in saying that lawmakers shouldn’t try to repeal something that voters overwhelmingly approved.
“I have been here since 2003,” said Walsh, D-Bellefontaine Neighbors. “And I’ve seen other efforts where the folks in charge up here think they know better than what the will of the people has been mandated after we’ve gone through an election process. And I think it would behoove us to listen to them.”
Right to work off the table?
At least one lawmaker, Sen. Eric Burlison, has put forth legislation that would bring back right to work, which bars unions and employers from requiring workers to pay dues. But GOP legislative leaders haven’t made resurrecting that issue a priority after voters overwhelmingly repealed the policy.
Schatz, for instance, said it was “unlikely” that right to work would have much traction in the Senate. And while Haahr said lawmakers may look at possibly allowing individual counties to enact right-to-work laws, he also didn’t see a lot of momentum for the issue.
“One of the benefits of being a leader of a caucus this large is there’s a diversity of ideas,” Haahr said. “Obviously our caucus doesn’t have a lot of enthusiasm to take another run at a statewide level. We’ll have conversations about what counties want to do.”
Walsh, a longtime member of a labor union, stressed that any effort to bring right to work back will be met with fierce resistance.
“I think that we should leave sleeping dogs lie and move Missouri forward,” she said.
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