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Spring break arrives for Missouri lawmakers; what's done and what's next

Marshall Griffin/St. Louis Public Radio

Missouri lawmakers are heading home as their annual spring break has arrived, but they took time before leaving to tout their mid-term accomplishments.

The House got an early start on the state budget this year, passing it three weeks earlier than usual. The Senate passed the first Ferguson-related bill of the 2015 regular session, but got stuck on what their leaders called their highest priority: fixing the student transfer law.  Four bills have been passed by both chambers and sent to Gov. Jay Nixon:

  • HB16 — a supplemental budget bill for the current fiscal year, provides extra disaster funding, in particular for damage caused by rioting and unrest in Ferguson;
  • HB 63 — bars current and past school superintendents from running for school board in the same district where they serve/served as superintendent;
  • HB 259 — creates the Missouri Dairy Industry Revitalization fund;
  • SB 149 — creates sales tax exemptions for data storage centers.

Nixon signed the supplemental budget bill into law Thursday.
"I think it's been a really good session (so far)," said House Speaker John Diehl, R-Town and Country.

Several Ferguson-related bills have been filed in the House, and a few of them have had public hearings in committees, but none has made it to the House floor. Diehl reiterated his opening day remarks that the House would not have a "Ferguson agenda."

"I think it's a mistake to try to fashion legislation to address a specific situation," Diehl said. "We have to look at the culture and the overall issue of what's happening."

Diehl added that passing other bills, including municipal court reform and the student transfer fix, would help address the issues that contributed to the unrest.

Minority Floor Leader Jacob Hummel, D-St. Louis, strongly disagreed with Diehl's approach, saying that the House has not advanced or debated a single bill on the floor designed to eliminate "institutionalized racial injustice." Diehl told reporters, though, that he has assigned the Senate version of the traffic fines/municipal courts bill to a committee so that it can receive a public hearing.

Hummel also slammed House Republicans for not expanding Medicaid.

"Missouri will continue to let rural hospitals close," Hummel said. "Two have shut down already: the Osage Hospital in Osceola and Missouri Rehabilitation Center in Mount Vernon, and many others are on the brink of closing right now … by not expanding Medicaid, 300,000 Missourians will continue to needlessly go without health care access."

A few hundred supporters of Medicaid expansion drove that point home as well by showing up at the Capitol on Thursday. Although they did not disrupt proceedings in either chamber, they did walk through the hallways, chanting and singing and carrying signs that read "Close the Coverage Gap" and "Have the Debate."

Student transfer bill after break

The 2015 legislative session resumes March 30, and one of the first bills expected to see floor action in the Senate is the House version of the student transfer bill.

"I think we've come a long way, and when I say 'we,' I mean the governor's office and the legislature," said Senate President Pro-tem Tom Dempsey, R-St. Charles. "I think any concerns about the bill right now are minor and can be worked out."

The Senate version of the bill is on hold over concerns about the $200 million-plus price tag. Most of that figure comes from amendments that would require dyslexia screenings and would force St. Louis County schools to hold students back a grade if they score poorly in math and English.

The House version does not require dyslexia screenings, and schools in underperforming districts in St. Louis County would be the only ones required to hold back struggling students.

Senate leaders are also planning to pass the 13 state budget bills within two weeks of their return from spring break. Under that timetable, Nixon, a Democrat, would be required to sign the budget into law before the end of the 2015 session. That would give Republican leaders in both chambers the chance to override any line-item vetoes without having to wait until September's veto session.

Bills passed by the Missouri House and sent to the Senate include:

  • HB 116/569 — would make Missouri a right-to-work state; forbids employers from requiring their workers to join a labor organization as a condition for employment
  • HJR 1 — proposed constitutional amendment to allow for a photo voter ID law
  • HB 30 — would require photo identification for voting in Missouri
  • HB 42 — establishes new standards for student transfers and would accredit schools by buildings rather than by district

Senate bills that have been passed and sent to the House include:

  • SB 5 — would limit amount of revenues from traffic fines that cities, towns, and villages can use in their budgets (first Ferguson-related bill to pass this year)
  • SB 11 — creates several new ethics regulations (does not include campaign contribution limits)
  • SB 239 — would place caps on non-economic damages in medical malpractice lawsuits

At least two bills have been passed by both chambers, but final versions must be hammered out and then passed again.  They are:

  • SB 12 — modifies several provision related to agriculture, including beef commodity merchandising and truck weight limits (does not redefine deer and other cervids as livestock, which prompted a veto last year)
  • SB 24 — would reduce lifetime eligibility for the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program, currently at 5 years (Senate wants a 4-year limit, House wants a 2-1/2-year limit)

Ray Howze and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

Follow Marshall Griffin on Twitter:  @MarshallGReport

Marshal was a political reporter for St. Louis Public Radio until 2018.