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House leader predicts what issues will see action - or won't - during session's final weeks

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 19, 2012 - As the Missouri General Assembly returns from spring break this week, state House Floor Leader (and speaker-in-waiting) Tim Jones, R-Eureka, agrees with Senate leaders that economic development will take center stage again.

But so will the state’s financial problems, which have been softened by federal stimulus aid over the past three years.

The budget now being crafted for the coming fiscal year, which begins July 1, has no extra federal aid and – in the eyes of some legislators – more honestly reflects how deep the economic recession has hit the state since late 2008.

In both chambers, the first half of this legislative session, which ends May 18, focused on a range of issues, many of them non-economic.

In the House’s case, much of the emphasis has been on the state budget, which must originate in that chamber.

Still, the House-approved bills also included a measure to implement a photo ID requirement for voters. The issue may not be considered by the state Senate, where some leaders want to wait until voters consider a proposed constitutional amendment this fall to allow a photo ID requirement, now barred in the state constitution.

Jones said he hopes the Senate will vote on the photo-ID bill, although Senate leaders have told the Beacon that they are cool to the idea because of a likely veto by Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat.

Critics contend the mandate will disenfranchise tens of thousands of legitimate voters who lack birth certificates or other documents for a government-issued ID.

Jones, who calls the critics' objections a "red herring," contends that few Missourians lack such an ID or they can easily get one. He expects the state would spend less than the $3 million a year budgeted to provide the IDs.

But more immediate concerns are on Jones' mind. Late last week, Nixon vetoed two other bills, which sought to tighten the state’s workers compensation laws and to curb workers’ ability to sue employers for discrimination. Both measures had been sought by business groups, including the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

Republican leaders in both chambers, including Jones, blasted the governor’s action. But Jones acknowledged in an interview that it’s unlikely the House will override the governor’s vetoes. That means new versions must be crafted or the issues deferred to the next session.

“We spent a great deal of legislative time on two measures that are now gone,” said Jones.

Regardless of what Nixon’s vetoes may imply, said Jones: “We didn’t pass these bills to score political points.”

He said the vetoes will add to a “huge level of uncertainty’’ for business. (While the vetoes have been viewed as a demonstration of the clout of labor and lawyers within the Nixon administration, the governor and unions have said both bills were unfair to workers and could be crafted to be more fair.)

House, Senate working closer together

But Jones said one positive came out of the debate on both bills: The House and Senate worked together to agree on versions of both measures instead of getting bogged down in internal disputes.

Jones said he and his Senate counterpart, Senate Majority Leader Tom Dempsey, R-St. Peters, have sought to work closely together this session to avoid the disputes that killed bills during the last session and last fall’s special session.

But now it’s on to this legislative session’s second half, and with that, a renewed focus on economics, as well as continued work on the budget, which must be finished by May 11.

Jones and state House Speaker Steve Tilley, R-Perryville, said in separate interviews that they expect to consider various economic proposals, including a tax-amnesty proposal to encourage the payment of back taxes.

As for state tax credits, both House leaders also remain on the same page. Said Jones: “There’s a proper role for state government to create the environment by which businesses want to move here and create jobs here.”

And he noted that neighboring states, especially Kansas, are using similar measures to persuade businesses to leave Missouri.

That stance could once again ignite disputes with the state Senate, where some key players want to curb the state tax-credit programs.

The House and Senate continue to be a split over Senate President Pro Tem Rob Mayer’s effort to win passage of a “right-to-work” law, which would stop closed shops, where all workers must be a member of the same union.

Jones said he did not foresee a House vote on the issue. Some right-to-work advocates say they may need to go the initiative-petition route and put the issue before the voters.

He did predict that the House and Senate may cut a deal, and find a compromise, on the “prevailing wage” issue.

Jones said the House and Senate also are working on similar bills that would allow employers to exclude contraceptives from their employees' health insurance. The aim is “strengthening the employers’ wishes” about what they want their insurance to cover, he said.

It’s also unclear if, or when, the General Assembly might take up the ethics legislation sought by Nixon, and others, to restore provisions that have been in place since 2010 and were knocked out by the state Supreme Court a few weeks ago on technical grounds.

House Democrats introduced such a measure Monday. It contains a restoration of campaign-donation limits, which Republicans eliminated in 2007 when a fellow Republican, Matt Blunt, was governor.

The Democrats' proposal would set the top donation limit at $5,000 per election, more than twice the old limits.

The Democratic proposal also would restore the 2010 law's expanded powers to the Missouri Ethics Commission, as well as the provision restricting committee-to-committee transfers of campaign funds.

Battles likely over blind, education

As for the budget, a House-Senate dispute also may be looming regarding the state’s longstanding assistance for the blind. The aid program spends $30 million a year to help 2,800 blind people who earn too much to qualify for the state’s Medicaid program.

A House budget panel has voted to eliminate the program and use the money to restore Nixon’s trims to the state’s planned higher-education budget. Nixon has objected to the cut, saying the aid is crucial to most blind people and that it’s unconscionable for the House even to consider the idea.

Jones predicted the House will keep the cut. “This is an extra benefit that no other disability class enjoys, and in tough economic times, extra programs that are specifically targeted to specific classes of individuals have to be looked at first,” he said.

Jones noted that the program does not restrict the recipient’s income or require means-testing. Assets – such as a home and $20,000 in personal belongings – are excluded.

Mayer told the Beacon that he opposes eliminating the blind-assistance program.

The other big issue is education. Jones predicted a hot debate on the “foundation formula,” which allocates state funding to schools.

Jones links that issue to the controversy over the 2010 state Supreme Court decision that allows students in unaccredited school districts to transfer to accredited schools. 

He wants to deal with both matters in a “comprehensive education bill,’’ which would also address tuition tax credits and charter school expansion.

Some education advocates would prefer to separate the education issues, but Jones warns the House won’t pass an education bill unless it’s a comprehensive one.

Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.