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As Session Opens, Missouri Legislature May Refight Old Battles But Resolve Some New Ones

The Missouri Capitol Building in Jefferson City, Mo. (Marshall Griffin, St. Louis Public Radio)
(Marshall Griffin/St. Louis Public Radio)
Missouri state capitol

As the Missouri General Assembly prepares to open on Wednesday for its five-month session, those involved – in and out of the state Capitol – say the big unknown about this year’s proceedings centers on one major question:

Will the session be about the past – the continued debates over Medicaid expansion and tax cuts? Or will it be controlled by new matters – notably, the unrest over student transfers from failed districts and the looming 2014 elections?

Publicly, Republican legislative leaders and Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, are talking mainly about revisiting their 2013 battles over Medicaid and tax cuts. But privately, some Republicans agree with analysts who contend that this fall’s elections – and the key suburban voting bloc – will steer the General Assembly into new directions.

The latter could push the school-transfer issue to the front of the pack.

Some Republicans predict that the General Assembly may first tackle the student transfers to show that it can work in a bipartisan fashion to ease the concerns of troubled school districts – poor and prosperous – that are facing unexpected costs and public dissatisfaction.

Such a move would be in line with the observations of George Connor, head of the political science department at Missouri State University in Springfield. He suggested that this regular session might begin with some of the feel-good afterglow of the special session in December.

During that gathering, legislators of both parties coalesced around Nixon’s proposal to offer tax credits to encourage Boeing Co. to move production of its new commercial aircraft to St. Louis.

Although Boeing now plans to keep production near Seattle, Missouri's effort was a crowd-pleaser to many powerful blocs in both partisan camps, particularly business and labor.

A smaller but similar bipartisan effort has been underway regarding student transfers.  Missouri law allows residents of unaccredited public-school districts to send their children to other districts in the same or neighboring county.

Now, hundreds of students from the troubled Riverview Gardens and Normandy districts have transferred to other districts, including Mehlville and Francis Howell -- in the process threatening the financial viability of the sending districts.

State Sen. Eric Schmitt, R-Glendale, pointed to the regular bipartisan meetings of nine of the region’s state senators – Democrats and Republicans – to work on a resolution acceptable to all the involved school districts. Six similar bills have been introduced to address some of the issues.

Legislators elsewhere in the state are watching closely because several rural districts – and Kansas City’s public schools  -- could soon be in the same boat. The broader interest could lead to a major bipartisan push for a resolution, Schmitt said.

Still, Connor predicted that such camaraderie would be short-lived – and possibly confined to the transfer issue -- because of “an inherent tension between the House, Senate and the governor.”

That tension already has surfaced when it comes to the Missouri budget, the chief issue that must be dealt with during each legislative session.

Budget battle entwined with Medicaid fight

Nixon plans to unveil his budget for the coming fiscal year during his annual State of the State address, set for Jan. 21. So far, the biggest hint of what's in it has been his renewed call for legislators to change course and approve expansion of the state’s Medicaid program, as recommended under the federal Affordable Care Act.

So far, Republican legislative leaders – led by House Speaker Tim Jones, R-Eureka – have rejected the idea on philosophical and financial grounds. They don’t believe that the federal government can fulfill its promise of footing most of the expansion’s bill. They also object to adding working people to the Medicaid rolls as is being done in about half of the states.

Nixon said during his latest news conference on the subject that the GOP’s resistance is sending at least $2 billion a year in Missouri tax dollars to other states. Without Medicaid expansion, the governor said that nearly 300,000 Missourians will remain uninsured. Other estimates have put the number of affected people to closer to 200,000.

“They’re factory workers and house cleaners, mechanics and truck drivers, moms and dads,” Nixon said. “These folks work tough, low-paying jobs that don’t offer health benefits, and they can’t afford a doctor’s bill,” the governor said.

Jones, meanwhile, has said that the General Assembly – led by the House – first must revamp the existing Medicaid program, which already covers close to 900,000 Missourians. He also predicted in an interview that the push to expand Medicaid will weaken as the flaws with the Affordable Care Act become more apparent to the public.

"The more Obamacare fails, the less you'll see that happen,'' Jones said, referring to talk of expansion. “Massively expanding a broken system is simply going to take money out of education and other parts of our budget.”

The budget fight goes beyond Medicaid. The state House and Senate leaders have agreed on projected increases in state revenue for the current and coming fiscal years, but Nixon and his budget team have not.  The governor’s budget proposals are expected to be based on slightly higher projections of growth, which legislators say are unrealistic.

Nixon’s administration, in turn, is pointing to unexpectedly strong revenue numbers in December as a possible sign of an improving state economy.

Tax cuts, "right to work" on House agenda

In any case, Jones and other GOP allies – including Schmitt – would prefer to see any revenue surplus go toward income tax cuts, which the governor vetoed last summer.

“We are definitely going to debate and move out of the House another tax reform and tax relief package because we believe that by having a low, certain reasonable tax system, we entice job creators to grow in our state, to move to our state, to create more jobs,” Jones said.

Since New Year’s Day, Jones has been traveling the state to promote a four-pronged legislative agenda that includes tax cuts, proposed changes in public education and the promotion of energy production.

Jones said in an interview that he also plans to seek House passage of a “right-to-work’’ bill to bar unions and employers from requiring workers to join a union, and pay dues, if a majority of the employees votes for representation.

Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, who presides over the state Senate, says he strongly supports such a move.  A debate over union rights would likely ensnare the state Senate in a filibuster by the Democratic minority.

Some Republicans privately fear that such a battle also could turn off rank-and-file union members who have been shifting into the GOP camp for years because of social issues, notably gun rights.

Such a fight could be politically dangerous, they say, during an election year. Some analysts agree.

With all the state House and half of the state Senate headed for the ballot this fall,  legislators will “want to avoid most ‘hopeless battles,’ especially those that might tarnish their image in some way,”  said Dave Robertson, a political scientist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

By “hopeless battles,” Robertson said he was referring to the “ ‘Man from LaMancha’ approach of  challenging conventional wisdom” even though such a fight has little chance of victory.

Such a tactic often appeals to each major party’s loyalists –  a key constituency in primaries -- but can turn off swing voters needed in general elections, he said.

Connor, in turn, predicted that legislators also may find themselves in political tugs of war with colleagues expected to run for higher office. Jones and Schmitt, for example, have both acknowledged an interest in running for statewide office in 2016. The Senate budget chairman, Kurt Schaefer of Columbia, already has declared his 2016 candidacy for attorney general.

Connor adds that he suspects that two current statewide officials will wield behind-the-scenes influence over this legislative session: incumbent Attorney General Chris Koster, a Democrat running for governor in 2016, and state Auditor Tom Schweich, a Republican seeking re-election this fall – and on the GOP shortlist to challenge Koster in 2016.

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