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Missouri legislature opens, with last session's issues at top of agenda

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 4, 2012 - After a contentious and at times unproductive 2011 session, the Missouri General Assembly officially returned Wednesday to tackle familiar issues -- and new challenges. The session runs until mid-May

The opening day was largely symbolic. Both House Speaker Steve Tilley, R-Perryville, and Senate President Pro Tem Rob Mayer, R-Dexter, addressed their chambers. Then members of the House spent the early afternoon reading portions of the U.S. and Missouri constitutions.

The legislative leadership, though, spent the day laying out their priorities. The two GOP-controlled chambers could have a vigorous agenda, dealing with proposals from business groups and the fallout from the Turner decision on schools. Both chambers also have expressed a willingness to re-examine non-controversial elements of the economic development bill that failed to pass in 2011.

Leaders from both the House and the Senate noted that the budget could be a main focus this year, especially because no more federal stimulus money is available to cover any shortfalls.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, said he is looking to Gov. Jay Nixon's State of the State Speech on Jan. 17 to see how the Democratic chief executive confronts the potentially perilous budget situation.

"I've been asked by several of you what's the budget hole and what are we going to have to do," said Schaefer at a press conference. "And a lot of those things rely upon the governor."

Schaefer added, "I certainly hope the governor presents us a real budget with numbers that we can work out, and not phantom legislation that once we hear about it on the night of the State of the State, we never hear from it again.

Both Tilley and Mayer said attempts to raise taxes -- including boosting the state's tobacco tax or collecting taxes on goods sold over the internet -- were non-starters.

"I don't think those are issues that will be brought before this legislature this year," Mayer said. "With such a weak recovery coming out of the recession of several years ago, now's not the time to be talking about increasing the tax burden on any segment of our society."

Tilley said that any attempt to raise cigarette taxes wouldn't make it through the House, though he did say he'd be willing to examine an internet sales tax.

But with the state looking down a budgetary hole, House Minority Leader Mike Talboy, D-Kansas City, advised the legislature to examine the proposals.

"When you have two very obvious mechanisms to take care of these problems, they not only need to be looked at; they need to be discussed," Talboy said.

Adopting Business' Agenda

Republican legislative leaders suggested that several items sought by a coalition of business groups -- changes to laws on workers compensation and workplace discrimination -- would be priorities. Some of those initiatives didn't pass last year or were vetoed by Nixon.

"Some of these provisions we've talked about this morning may not be headline-grabbing law or legislation, but they're very important for creating a more favorable climate for business expansion," Mayer said. "They're things we've attempted to do over the last year or two."

But House Republican don't have a veto-proof majority, so several Democrats would have to switch sides to override Nixon's potential objection. The governor, for example, vetoed legislation last year to alter workplace discrimination statutes.

Talboy gave no indication that his caucus would change course in opposing some of items on the business groups' agenda. For one thing, Democrats in the House were uniformly opposed to altering workplace discrimination laws.

"We had several of the bills not make it through or get vetoed," Talboy said. "And the veto was sustained because of the damage it did to workers. When you have workers that are having their wages driven down and have underemployment opportunities, that's not real job creation. And when you don't have real job creation, the people that get hurt the most are the job creators -- because nobody's buying the products because the purchasing power of the consumer is lower when workers are making less."

One other controversial measure unlikely to pass is the "right to work" bill. Such a law would prohibit someone from having to pay union dues as a condition of employment.

That bill received some floor time last session in the Senate but didn't come to a vote. Senate Majority Leader Tom Dempsey, R-St. Charles, said, "It's not in that list of top five priorities that we have" -- although he said that changes to the prevailing wage and labor agreements may get floor time.

Education Looms Large

One especially contentious issue is the Turner vs. Clayton decision. That Supreme Court ruling upheld a law allowing students in an unaccredited school district --- St. Louis, Riverview Gardens and most recently Kansas City -- to transfer to neighboring accredited districts.

After legislative "fixes" faltered this year, lawmakers say they will tackle the issue again. There's friction between lawmakers who want to give discretion to districts over how many students to accept and those who favor a comprehensive solution that includes tuition tax credits or expansion of charter schools.

For instance, Tilley said that in exchange for such discretion and other alterations to the state's foundation formula, House Republicans would also want to include tuition tax credits or charter school expansion in the mix.

"I don't want to draw a line in the sand," Tilley said. "But I'm what telling you is they should be connected and that's my intention.

While noting that his caucus has a "diverse view" of charter schools, Talboy said it would be wise for any bills to avoid controversial elements. That was echoed by Sen. David Pearce -- a Warrensburg Republican who is the chairman of the Senate education committee.

"I like to keep issues as clean and small as possible -- as opposed to putting four or five different issues together," said Pearce. "Sometimes the reality of this place is that everything is jumbled up together, and it's take it or leave it. If that happens, then the likelihood of something getting passed is much more remote."

Asked what he would do to break a stalemate, Mayer said legislators were coming up with a plan to make sure that "students that have been in a failed school district now for many years will have the opportunity to get a world-class education."

"We have had ongoing discussions because the law says that those students in unaccredited districts can enroll in adjoining districts," Mayer said. "So we're trying to develop a plan to make that work so those students can get a good education."

A Call To Refocus

Tilley, who abandoned a run for lieutenant governor late last year, used part of his address to tell lawmakers to focus on what's most important.

"As I enter my last session in the General Assembly and personally go through a difficult time in my life, I have had time to reflect back on my achievements and the memorable moments," said Tilley, who announced last year that he was going through a divorce. "It's not the legislative or political victories that bring a smile to my face; it's the personal moments with past and present members that touched my heart or taught me something that I will take with me long after I'm gone."

In particular, Tilley noted a meeting with former state Sen. Jeff Smith, D-St. Louis, while he served a prison term for lying to federal authorities. Tilley said that Smith told him that when he was in the Senate, he had 4,000 contacts in his phone. Only about 100 of those people, Tilley said, stayed in contact with Smith.

"I told him I was sorry, and his response surprised me," Tilley said. "'Don't be sorry,' he said. 'It's one of the few positives of this whole thing.' Before he went to prison, Jeff said he spent 95 percent of his time with the 3,900 people that didn't truly care about him. But when he left, he knew he was going to spent 100 percent of his time with the people who truly did care about him."

Tilley finished his speech with a word of advice from state Sen. Jason Crowell, R-Cape Girardeau. Last session, the two sparred over everything from the economic development bill to congressional redistricting.

"When I first came here seven years ago, Sen. Crowell gave me a piece of advice that I've carried with me ever since," Tilley said. "He said, 'Leave the building a better place than how you found it.'"

Now that he's not running for anything, Tilley said, "That's one thing Rob and I agree on: We want to leave the General Assembly on a high mark. That's not only good for us, but it's good for the citizens of this state."

Jason Rosenbaum, a freelance journalist in St. Louis, covers state and local government and politics. 

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.