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Area legislators lay out session challenges, concerns, objectives

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 20, 2012 - From dealing with the aftermath of a Missouri Supreme Court decision allowing for potentially massive school transfers to tackling a tougher budgetary climate, state lawmakers are facing some daunting challenges in the next few months. And legislators at a forum Friday morning at the St. Louis Club in Clayton said facing up to some of those tasks won't be easy.

The forum -- sponsored by the Lathrop & Gage law firm -- offered a bipartisan cadre of St. Louis area lawmakers a chance to examine the issues facing the Missouri General Assembly. Lawmakers at the forum included state Senate Majority Leader Tom Dempsey, R-St. Charles; Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, D-University City; Rep. Chris Carter, D-St. Louis City;  and Rep. Rick Stream, R-Kirkwood and Sen. Eric Schmitt, R-Glendale. 

One of the more prominent issues at the hour-long forum involved legislative reaction to the Turner v. Clayton decision by the Missouri Supreme Court.

The 2010 ruling allows students living in unaccredited school districts -- currently St. Louis, Riverview Gardens and Kansas City -- to transfer to nearby districts. Their home district would pay the tuition and transportation costs, while the receiving districts would have no say over how many students they would absorb.

Chappelle-Nadal -- who also serves as a member of the University City School Board -- said the issue is proving to be "quite a burden for many in our suburban school districts." She added some of the eight school districts that she represents in the state Senate -- such as University City -- are already dealing with significant problems themselves.

"Even though the school district on paper is fully accredited, the reality is for the last five years the APR -- the annual progress report -- is equivalent to a provisional accreditation," said Chappelle-Nadal, referring to University City's district. "And we're working very, very hard to increase the outcomes for our students that are challenged in multiple ways."

"You don't want to have an influx of students that come from completely unaccredited school districts, because it's not going to help you at all," she added.

Stream said any bill that allows districts flexibility to control the flow of transfer students may also include other measures that could prove controversial. House Speaker Steve Tilley, R-Perryville, made such a declaration on the first day of the legislative session.

"Last year I had a bill to protect the county districts," said Stream, referring to the aforementioned planto provide school districts with flexibility. "But at the same time, I know that we've got to do more to make sure all the kids down there get a quality education. And that may involve things such as expansion of charter schools, virtual schools, tax credit vouchers to go to a school of their choice, open enrollment. All of these things are on the table now."

"We're not going to get a Turner fix until we agree to some form of reform," Stream added.

The assembled lawmakers also provided some reaction to Gov. Jay Nixon's "State of the State" speech this week, which included the outlines of a proposed budget for the coming fiscal year that incorporates cuts in higher education and the state's Medicaid program.

The budget also relies on legislative approval of a proposal to allow "tax amnesty," in which Missourians could pay overdue or back taxes without interest or penalties.

Stream said legislators were likely to consider the idea. But eliminating the state's budget problems, he added, should come primarily through spending cuts.

"It affects people," Stream said. "But we have a balanced budget requirement -- as do 49 states in the country. But we actually do balance our budget. We don't use smoke and mirrors or sleight of hand to do it.  As a result, we're one of only seven states to have an AAA bond rating, which I think is very important. It saves the taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars over the years because of lower rates."

In his proposed budget, Nixon advocated $191.7 million in"additional efficiencies in the Medicaid program,'' according to the state budget office, which also emphasized "no change in eligibility or covered services."  Budget director Linda Luebbering told the Beacon earlier this week that some of the savings would come from lower reimbursement rates for managed care, expanding the use of generic drugs and increasing pharmaceutical rebates.

Chappelle-Nadal noted that many Democrats unsuccessfully fought cuts to Medicaid eligibility in the mid-2000s. She added that she hoped "people who are the most vulnerable will still get the services that they need."

"What we are finding -- especially in my community in the district that I represent -- more people are in need," she said. "The working class is diminishing. And a lot of people that had the healthy jobs that we know about -- the people who work around Fenton and some other areas -- they are depending on some of the service organizations that you all give to."

"That is a bad situation and it needs to be addressed," she added.

Dempsey Eyes A Busy Agenda

In his remarks, Dempsey provided a glimpse into upcoming Senate debates over workers compensation-related issues. For one thing, Dempsey said this may be the year the legislature takes action on altering the Second Injury Fund. The entityis an incentive for employers to hire people with pre-existing injuries. The fund has been facing insolvency for several years.

In recent years, there's been a standoff between some Republicans and business groups that want to reduce what the fund pays out in benefits, and Democrats who want to increase a surcharge businesses pay into to as a way to make the fund solvent.

Dempsey said one legislative solutioncould involve a combination of both approaches. The bill -- which was heard in committee this week -- would reduce the types of cases handled by the fund and provide the ability to increase the surcharge.

"We'll be making changes to pare down the Second Injury Fund,"Dempsey said. "Those individuals that would have gone to that fund would still be protected. They'll go to the workers compensation system. ... In order to take care of that $1 billion liability, we're going to need to raise that surcharge for a period of what I believe will be about six years. It's been negotiated with major business groups and then the surcharge will go from 3 percent to 4.5 percent."

If that additional 1.5 percent isn't sufficient, Dempsey said there "will be an ability to raise it an addition 1.5 percent."

"It's a long-term problem, but we want to take decisive steps to take care of it, to right the ship and then go back to that 3 percent surcharge," Dempsey said.

Dempsey also said the Senate will soon tackle moving certain workers compensation cases away from courts and changing prevailing wage regulations. He also said the Senate will also look into restricting damages on workplace discrimination claims.

Chappelle-Nadal said she was opposed to changes to workplace discrimination regulations, a measure that Gov. Jay Nixon vetoedlast year. "It's going to produce a climate that's even harder for minorities in the state of Missouri," Chappelle-Nadal said. "And that's one of the reasons why I'm fighting some of the bills that have been introduced this year and we're going to have to deal with head on."

Texting And Tolling

In the only questions from the audience, Mike Scully -- who works for U.S. Bank -- asked whether there would be any movement to expand the state's restrictions on texting while driving. Currently, the ban only applies to Missourians who are under 21.

Chappelle-Nadal said she would support an expansion, noting that texting while driving is unsafe. Schmitt said efforts to change the law could face some major opposition.

"I think there will be a renewed effort, I don't know it will get anywhere," said Schmitt, who is a partner at Lathrop & Gage.

Scully also asked whether there would be any push to increase the state's gas tax. Schmitt noted there is going to be a "renewed discussion" about whether to allow for tolls to be imposed on vehicles that use Interstate 70, as a way to pay for needed improvements.

"There's a tolling idea, there's a sales tax idea, there's a gas tax idea," Schmitt said. "And so, if you want to do that long term, how are you going to pay for it? I think we're going to have more of that discussion this year."

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