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Missouri legislators shift from state budget to other issues for final week

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: The Missouri General Assembly is launching into its final week of the session by redirecting its attention to certain issues – such as health care, abortion and labor unions – that had been on the back burner until the state budget was completed.

For example:

  • The House voted 115-39 in favor of a bill (HB 400) to require a physician to be present during the administration of the abortion drug RU486; now, medical procedure calls for the woman to be at home when the second dose of the drug is administered.
  • The House also voted 86-69 to pass a measure (SB 29) to require public-employee unions to get annual approval of members before their dues can be automatically deducted from their paychecks.

Separate approval is needed for any union political contributions. The bill exempts police and firefighters' unions.
Both bills now go to Gov. Jay Nixon because the Missouri Senate has already approved them.

But the political implications of the two House votes are strikingly different.

The vote on the health-care bill that includes the RU486 provision was veto-proof, while the vote on the labor measure was far from it.

RU486 is an early-abortion drug that causes a miscarriage. Supporters of the requirement contended that RU486 was a "dangerous drug." Critics, who say that the drug is safe, said the bill's aim was to restrict a woman's access to legal abortion.

Nixon, who generally backs abortion rights, hasn't signaled his intention. He previously has allowed some anti-abortion bills to become law without his signature, while he has vetoed others.

Nixon's stance, and possible action, are less in doubt on SB 29, which some allies and critics contend could be a first step in the conservative effort to make Missouri a "right-to-work'' state, in which closed-union workplaces are banned. (In closed-union businesses, all workers pay dues if a majority has voted to join a union. In many cases, all affected workers have dues automatically deducted from their paychecks.)

Nixon is expected to veto SB 29, which is opposed by unions, who say that the aim of the bill's backers -- including some business groups -- is to curb the political clout of labor by cutting off donations from workers.

Labor unions were strong supporters of Nixon’s re-election last fall.

Although unions sent out statements blasting the House's action, labor allies also are heartened by the weak House vote, particularly since a number of  Republican legislators joined Democrats in voting against it.

“This bill is all politics,” said Mike Louis, Missouri AFL-CIO secretary treasurer. “Not one Missouri worker testified in favor of SB 29, and that’s because this bill has nothing to do with helping working people. Public workers in this state have faced an uphill fight for collective bargaining rights and are 50th in the nation in pay.”

Bradley Harmon, the president of CWA 6355, which represents several thousand state workers, said, “This law is about protecting right-wing extremists and their corporate buddies, not about protecting anyone’s paycheck. That’s why we call it ‘paycheck deception’. I testified in committee repeatedly against this bill, as did dozens of Missouri public employees.”

Meanwhile, the Missouri Chamber of Commerce lauded the bill’s passage, noting that it has been a key objective this session. “This really should be called the ‘free-choice bill,” said Dan  Mehan, president and CEO of the state chamber, which represents thousands of employers.

“The legislation doesn’t keep an employee from making a contribution, but it gives that employee the choice," Mehan added.

Also registering support, early on, was the Missouri chapter of Americans for Prosperity, which has called the bill the first step in a move to get "right to work'' passed in the state.

Late Monday night, the Senate was embroiled in a filibuster over another measure (HB 409) to eliminate the state's prevailing wage requirement for public-works projects in rural Missouri.

The bill, which already passed the House, specifically exempts Kansas City, St. Louis and the suburban counties surrounding them -- including St. Louis, St. Charles, Warren, Lincoln, Franklin and Jefferson.

Labor strongly opposes the bills. St. Louis area state senators participating in the filibuster included Scott Sifton, D-Affton; Maria Chappelle-Nadal, D-University City; and Gina Walsh, D-Bellefontaine Neighbors.

The filibuster continued until shortly after midnight, when backers of the bill agreed to drop it, in the wake of the pro-labor senators' refusal to back down.

Budget battle continues over First Steps

But even though the General Assembly officially handed over its proposed budget last Friday to the governor, a fight continues over one of the budget bills that eliminates the existing tax credit for elderly and disabled who rent, part of a tax break program known as the "circuit breaker." The measure would shift the $55 million into a new "Missouri Senior Services Protection Fund."

That fund, however, would divide the money among several existing tax-credit programs, including the First Steps program for early childhood education for children with developmental disabilities.

The aim of the change, House leaders say, was to force Nixon to choose between the tax break for the elderly or the aid to children. But the governor is attacking the action and accusing legislators of playing politics.

House Speaker Tim Jones, R-Eureka, and House Budget chairman Rick Stream, R-Kirkwood, told reporters Monday that it was the governor who was playing politics because he earlier had supported getting rid of the tax credit for elderly and disabled renters, but then recently changed his mind.

"The governor sent us the language he wanted on circuit-breaker,'' Jones said, which was used in crafting the bill.

"It's shameful that he's playing politics with Missouri's children and seniors in this fashion,'' Jones said.

Nixon says he had made clear from the beginning that eliminating the tax credit had to be part of a broader reform of the state's tax credit programs, which all told now cost the state close to $600 million a year. When that failed to happen, his staff says, the governor dropped any support for eliminating the renters' tax credit.

But Nixon is particularly angry over any attempt to force him to pick between tax breaks for the elderly or for children.  The state Senate appears to be taking Nixon's side on that issue as a Senate committee on Monday approved a provision to provide money for First Steps without eliminating the circuit-breaker credit.

Stream, Jones and Major Leader John Diehl, R-Town and Country, said the Senate has not discussed the issue with them and that they will examine the proposed change if it gets through the Senate and lands before the House this week.

Stream added that he was concerned about reports that Nixon planned to use other state money to pay for First Steps, assuming that he vetoes the budget bill that would force him to choose between that program and the circuit breaker program. Stream asked if Nixon had "a slush fund."

Nixon is scheduled to appear at two schools Tuesday to promote First Steps. In a statement Monday, he praised the Senate committee's action aimed at resolving the dispute.

“For more than two decades, with strong bipartisan support, the First Steps program has provided targeted and effective early intervention services for infants and children with developmental disabilities or delays,” Nixon said.

“These services help families give their children the best possible start and reduce the need for more costly interventions later in life. Unfortunately, funding for this longstanding and fiscally responsible program is in jeopardy," the governor continued. "Today’s action by the committee is an important step toward ensuring infants and toddlers with developmental disabilities will continue to receive the services they need to reach their full potential. For the benefit of the thousands of families who depend on First Steps services each year, I urge the legislature to continue to make progress on this important issue.”

Several years ago, Nixon's GOP predecessor -- Gov. Matt Blunt -- touched off a firestormwhen Blunt sought to eliminate First Steps in a budget-cutting move. The program's funding ended up being restored.

Jones and Stream also were disturbed by Nixon's jab last Friday at another budget measure that includes $38 million to purchase and renovate a privately owned building next door to the Capitol, which would be used to house some legislative and state workers now in the Capitol.

Jones told reporters that the money was put into the special capital-improvement measure only after Nixon had signed on. The provision also earmarks $50 million to repair the state Capitol, $20 million to improve Missouri's state parks system and $19 million to revamp Fulton State Hospital for the mentally ill.

Jones and Stream said buying the building for $38 million would save the state money within a decade because it no longer would be paying rent to house the state Department of Transportation in the building.

House, Senate expects less pressure this week

The budget dispute aside, Jones and other Republican leaders say that some pressure will be off legislators this week, after last week saw action on several priority measures -- notably, a broad tax cut.

Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey, R-St. Charles, gives his take on what to expect this week.

Jones praised the measure, now before the governor, as "one of the most far-reaching income tax cuts'' in Missouri history.

Nixon has hinted that he may veto the tax cuts.

Dempsey and Jones both say that they are optimistic that a House-Senate deal will be reached this week to approve legislation to revamp the state's Second Injury Fund. The financially troubled program is used to pay for workers with a pre-existing condition who are injured on the job. Both chambers have approved differing bills, with negotiators seeking to find a palatable compromise.

"As we look at (the final week), we'll be looking at resolving the issues we have remaining," Dempsey said. "The Second Injury Fund, so we can get that revenue stream going and take care of those thousands of injured workers to where there are no claims. So that's a priority."

Diehl and Jones said the House is likely this week to take up a sales tax increase to fund transportation improvements, a ballot item that passed earlier this year out of the Missouri Senate.

Leaders in both chambers say they also hope to reach consensus on legislation reconfiguring the state's tax credits. Once again, as in previous sessions, the hang-up appears to be over caps for the historic preservation and the low-income housing tax credits. The Senate is seeking much lower caps than the House.

"We're not as close as I'd like. But we are getting closer," Dempsey said.

Diehl said there's "a different dialogue between the two bodies" on the issue, compared to previous sessions because there's less rancor between the key Senate and House players in the tax-credit debate.

"I think, pretty clearly in the hallways, you can sense that there's not the 'bombs' being thrown back and forth between the two chambers," said Diehl, referring to previous fights over reconfiguring tax credits. "Any time you have that environment, it does make for more productive discussions behind the scenes."

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