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With clock ticking, Missouri General Assembly eyes unfinished priorities

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 10, 2012 - With a little over a month to go, the Missouri General Assembly is gearing up for the home stretch of its legislative session. And with plenty of work unresolved, the next few weeks could prove critical for moving major pieces of legislation across the finish line.

So far, the GOP-controlled legislature hasn't completed work on many bills. Individual pieces of legislature have passed through the House or the Senate, but only three bills have made it to Gov. Jay Nixon’s desk. Two were vetoed, and Republicans are unlikely to override the Democratic governor’s objections.

The only bill that Nixon has signed is Sen. Scott Rupp’s legislation to change the length of school board terms in certain school districts.

Like many legislative sessions, bills viewed as priorities at the beginning of the year have either languished or have hit opposition. Still, it hasn’t been uncommon in the past few years for the legislature to pass a raft of bills during the last few days of the session. That could happen again.

One member of House leadership says the fact that Senate bills were passed so early in the session was actually unusual.

"The Senate's moving a little slower this year, but that doesn't correlate with how many bills we're going to pass," said House Majority Leader Tim Jones, R-Eureka. "Because we've passed a significant amount of House legislation over there. So there's plenty of vehicles that they could choose from to move their priorities on if they would like to do so as well."

But with a finite amount of time left until May 18, at least one lawmaker says that a big agenda does not have time to make it through.

“Well, the clock’s ticking,” said state Rep. Todd Richardson, R-Poplar Bluff. “A lot remains to be seen about how the budget makes its way through the process and into conference committee and how much energy and capital are spent to get an agreement on the budget."

Reality check

In general, even-numbered years are less productive in terms of the sheer number of bills passed. Not including budgetary legislation, the General Assembly passed roughly 145 bills in 2009, compared to 91 in 2010.

“Normally the sessions in election year do less; that’s the nature of Missouri politics,” said George Connor, a political science professor at Missouri State University. “When it’s an election year, they get less accomplished because they don’t want to run against themselves come November.”

But with unfinished priorities from the 2011 session, legislators put forth a fairly ambitious agenda for the year.

In speeches in January, House Speaker Steve Tilley, R-Perryville, and Senate President Pro Tem Rob Mayer, R-Dexter, called for bills reconfiguring workers compensation and workplace discrimination statutes. After they passed, Nixon promptly vetoed them.

Without a veto-proof majority in the House, legislators are unlikely to override Nixon’s objection. But Mayer and Jones said a different version of the workers compensation bill could come along that meets Nixon’s approval.

“Even though the governor has vetoed the workers compensation reform bill, it’s my understanding that he’d be willing to be work on some language that would be acceptable to him,” Mayer said. “We’ll continue to work on that bill so we can get it passed at the end of the year.”

Richardson, the handler of the House version of the bill, said he's "cautiously optimistic" about passing a bill that would either meet muster with Nixon or have a veto-proof majority. He said he doubts that the workplace discrimination bill would get past Nixon.

"There has been a renewed effort since the governor vetoed [the workers’ compensation bill] to try find something that either Gov. Nixon will sign or we can achieve a veto-proof majority on," Richardson said. "I’ve been working with [Senate Majority Leader Tom Dempsey, R-St. Charles] and had some conversations with the governor’s office. And you know, there’s at least a framework of the bill in place that would satisfy most people’s concerns.”

Tilley’s speech at the beginning of the legislative session touched on a constitutional amendment to restrict government spending during more prosperous times and to push legislation “creating a stable funding source for Missouri veterans homes.” Those bills have passed the House but haven't received floor time in the Senate.

Mayer’s address featured a call to rein in “excessive regulations and rules created by state agency boards comprised of unelected bureaucrats” and to change the state’s nonpartisan court plan.

Sen. Bob Dixon’s bill that prompts state agencies to review every state administrative rule every five years passed the Senate earlier this year. It is awaiting action in the Missouri House.

And while a Missouri Senate committee heard a proposed constitutional amendment last week to alter the state’s nonpartisan court plan, efforts to change the system have often run into opposition in the Missouri Senate.

Meanwhile, other agenda items – including restructuring payday loan regulations and comprehensive ethics legislation – have failed to gain traction. Efforts to shorten the legislative session and make the governor and lieutenant governor run as a ticket also haven't made much progress.

Education and budget

Both Mayer and Tilley cited a pressing need to overhaul how the state’s educational infrastructure, especially in light of the Turner vs. Clayton decision, which allows children in unaccredited school districts to transfer to adjoining districts.

The issue is especially important to urban legislators, since school districts in St. Louis and Kansas City are unaccredited.

Sweeping education legislation – scholarships for students in unaccredited school districts, expansion of charter schools and altering how students in unaccredited districts can transfer – hasn’t gotten far in either chamber. The Senate did pass legislation last week that lengthened the time necessary for a teacher to obtain tenure.

“It’s going to be difficult to pass an extensive amount of reform in the area of education for this year. However, I do hold out hope that we can make some incremental process in that area. We’ll continue to work in that area to get that accomplished,” said Mayer.

Mayer added he’s hoping legislation passes to help students in unaccredited school districts to “access a different school or a different educational experience,” while also “trying to assist the unaccredited school districts gain accreditation and improve.”

The state’s budget though is expected to dominate the legislature’s attention for April. Mayer said major goals include increasing K-12 education spending $5 million more than last year -- as well as keeping the state’s higher education budget flat.

“Both of those would be pretty significant feats considering our budget situation, but we’ve placed education as a high priority because we believe it’s necessary for economic development,” Mayer said.

Some lawmakers – such as Sen. Jason Crowell, R-Cape Girardeau – have foreshadowed opposition to any part of the budget that relies on what he deemed in a recent newsletter to be “gimmick assumptions and questionable one-time funds.”

“Part of the problem stems from using proposed revenue-increasing legislation that may or may not pass this year to prop up the budget revenue numbers. It’s been done in years past, and it’s being done again this year,” Crowell wrote, pointing to a “tax amnesty” program that has yet to pass. “In my opinion, counting on these changes before passage is just gimmick accounting and wrong.”

Jones doesn't know whether there's going to be "any higher drama on the budget until it actually hits the floor in the Senate."

“Each chamber pays a lot of attention to the budget. But the Senate has raised different issues this year," Jones said. "And each time you raise more issues on a subject, you’re going to end up spending more time on that. And you’re going to have less time to spend on other things."

House Budget Chairman Ryan Silvey, R-Kansas City, said it's possible to hash out the budget and work on other priorities. The question, he said, is whether "the Senate has the ability to move anything, outside of the budget.

"If they decide that they want to start moving stuff, I'm sure that the House will be happy to address some of those things," Silvey said. "But we've sent a lot of bills to the Senate; they really haven't sent that many to us."

He noted that the Senate hasn't even taken up the supplemental budget, which was passed in February.

"They haven't moved on that," Silvey said. "It's hard to say with this particular group of senators what's going to happen."

Economic development surprise?

Mayer also said discussion has taken place behind the scenes about a smaller-scale legislation on tax credits.

Such an effort was a major aspect of last year’s special session, which ended up breaking down after disagreements between the two chambers.

“I’m a bit cautious; I don’t want to get too overly optimistic,” Mayer said. “But I think the significance of [tax credit reform] and economic development provisions certainly warrant enough significance that it’s worth looking at them again and seeing if we can get some energy and momentum together to address those issues in the last few weeks.”

House Minority Leader Mike Talboy, D-Kansas City, said it's possible there could be a breakthrough, especially the Senate steps away from an insistence on placing expiration dates on certain programs.

"I have heard some types of beginning chatter about that," Talboy said. "But I think if folks discuss the fact that we have programs that they would like to see capped and reformed on some level, that’s fine. If it’s going to be an insistence on sunsets again, I think we’re probably in the same boat that we were at during special session.”

Richardson is less optimistic.

"We spent a lot of time during the regular session working on tax credits, we spent eight weeks during special session working on tax credits, and we couldn't come to an agreement," he said. "I'm not sure there's the will this session to make a push on those kind of things."

"But you know, things can happen quickly in the building," added Richardson, who is nearing the end of his first term in the Missouri House. "That's certainly the lesson I've learned in the short time that I've been there."

Wait til next year?

Connor doesn’t see such tax credit legislation passing, especially with divisions between the chambers on how to curtail them. Completing a long list of priorities in a short amount of time can be difficult, he said.

“Missouri legislators are probably in the last couple of sessions trying to accomplish more than what they can actually accomplish in the session, whether it’s an election year or not,” Connor said. “The fact that they’re trying to do more makes it more difficult to get stuff done. Throw in the fact that it’s an election year, that makes it that much harder.”

For instance, Connor pointed out the lack of progress on “ethics” legislation – even after the Missouri Supreme Court struck down a law that restricted how money can be transferred between political action committees.

Jones said earlier this year that any such changes were unlikely to pass this year.

But despite the finite amount of time, Jones said there's plenty of weeks left to pass major bills.

"I think this is one of the longest possible sessions you can have," Jones said. "And think by nature of that, things might seem like they're moving a little slower. But if you count this week, we still have six full weeks left. Which is a significant amount of time to move things through."

While he expects that some legislation -- a state budget -- will eventually get passed, Talboy said "big-ticket items" may be fewer and far between. 

"You always have a decrease in big-ticket items during an election year," Talboy said. "And I think that the other complication this year is redistricting and what that has meant in the short amount of time the Senate map changed drastically and that changed people's attentions in the House. You had House members who had brand new districts, some of them changed dramatically. Some members are running against each other.

"I think that you have an overall kind of a perfect storm for a slowdown in that sense," he added.

Connor said it’s more likely that sweeping legislative priorities will be accomplished next year. That’s when there will be an infusion of new lawmakers – and new leadership.

“This may change a little bit with some new blood, with changes in the House speaker, with changes in the key leadership, with some new people coming in and some people leaving – that may shake things up,” Connor said.

Jones, who is expected to become the next house speaker, said he's fostered a good relationship with Dempsey, who could replace Mayer as president pro tem.

And Silvey, who is running for the Senate, added: "There's a pretty strong sense in Jefferson City that come January 2013 the Senate will be a much more functioning body and the relationship between the Senate and House will be a lot better than it has been in years."

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