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With budget passed and two weeks to go, legislators hope to avoid last-minute chaos

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 30, 2010 - Legislative term limits, long the whipping boy for the bad things that can go on in Jefferson City, could be a boon for the final two weeks of this session.

At least that's how Senate President Pro Tem Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph, sees it.

For 10 members of the Missouri Senate, including Shields, this is their last legislative session. That's also true for 52 members of the state House.

With this session's unexpected luxury of having two weeks to deal with non-budget issues, combined with a large bloc of term-limited members, "you can accomplish things you never could," Shields said in an interview.

With little or no fear of retaliation at the polls, he explained, term-limited legislators may feel freer to embrace the idea of bold action on various controversial measures, such as proposals to revamp the state's tax credit programs, overhaul state departments and agencies, or take a renewed stab at changing Missouri's voting procedures.

For example, on the tax-credit issue, said Shields, "Almost the entire Senate is willing to do something."

Not so on the opposite side of the Capitol, where state House Speaker Ron Richards, R-Joplin and a candidate for the Missouri Senate, isn't too keen about the initiatives sought by the Senate or Gov. Jay Nixon.

And term limits don't appear to be an inducement.

A spokeswoman for Richards said Friday that the speaker takes a particularly dim view of Nixon's spirited effort to persuade the Legislature to retool and rein in the state's tax credit programs, which the governor says have become too costly.

"It absolutely won't happen this session," said Richards' spokeswoman Kristen Blanchard. She said that Richards is open to "an objective review" of the 59 state tax-credit programs, which cost the state almost $600 million a year. But he disagrees with some of the governor's conclusions -- and, most definitely, Nixon's latest lobbying campaign.

The spokeswoman pointed to Richards' written statement earlier this month in which he said the final weeks of the session "will not be spent scrambling to push a job-killing proposal from the governor through the House."

"We feel (the Nixon administration) is trying to pit jobs and education against each other," Blanchard said, referring to Nixon's numerous conference calls and news conferences of late that involved sympathetic public education groups and educators who raised concerns about the education money at risk because of tax credits.

Richards sees economic tax credits as an important tool to attract economic investment and jobs, Blanchard said, which in turn can lead to more state income -- and, thus, more money for education.

The speaker also has repeatedly highlighted Nixon's public praise a year ago for state tax credit programs, especially the historic tax breaks popular in St. Louis.

Action Expected On Voter ID, Rebooting Government

The Missouri House is open to reviewing some of the "reboot government" proposals advanced by Shields and Nixon, the speaker's spokeswoman said. Some of those proposals would combine state departments or agencies.

The House also plans to examine closely the Senate-approved measure on abortion -- a frequent topic in the Missouri Legislature -- to see if the Senate's proposed stiffer requirements are deemed strict enough by the House's anti-abortion bloc (which includes Richards).

Richards also may entertain some legislators' last-minute proposals on immigration, spawned by all the national attention over Arizona's new law that requires police to check the citizenship status of people who are stopped.

Meanwhile, in the Senate, its members are expected to take up a House-approved proposal to allow early voting, without the restrictions now imposed on absentee voters. The bill also would require voters to show government-issued photo IDs at the polls. It is accompanied by a similar constitutional amendment that, if approved by the Senate, would go before voters this fall.

Shields noted that the Senate already has approved many of the "rebooting government" proposals now before the House. He predicts "a lot of movement" on that front in the House in the coming days.

Shields and Richards predict final legislative passage of a measure mandating that insurance companies cover some health therapies for autistic children. The two chambers differ slightly on how much coverage would be required, but both officials predict a deal will be reached within the next two weeks.

Both also expressed optimism that the House and Senate will reach an agreement on an ethics bill aimed at curbing legislators' actions when it comes to campaign money-raising, shifting money between campaign committees to hide the true donors and hiring each other as campaign consultants.

The House appears more amenable than the Senate when it comes to reinstating campaign donation limits, which the state had in place for 12 years, until the Legislature tossed them out in 2007. But for the moment, such limits are deemed doubtful for final passage.

In any case, Shields can't get over the unexpected luxury of a legislative session where members can focus on various issues during the final weeks of a session. Usually, both chambers are haggling over the state budget right up until the constitutional deadline for passage in early May. As a result, the session's last week is usually a mad scramble -- with a lot of legislative casualties because time ran out.

With the 2011 budget approved early, the Senate leader said, "We're really got two weeks to work on legislation. That's an interesting situation to be in."

Nixon Praises Legislators, Sticks To Tax-Credit Guns

Nixon, a former state senator, also has high hopes for legislative action on a number of fronts before adjournment on May 14.

In St. Louis on Friday, the governor offered effusive praise for legislators' "really, really solid job" in getting a budget crafted early. However, he also observed that he may still be using his line-item veto.

Still, Nixon emphasized his hopes that the Legislature will approve an autism-coverage bill, and he also called for action on a proposal -- generally overlooked in recent weeks -- to impose stiffer penalties on people found to be driving while intoxicated.

Nixon reiterated his support for an ethics measure, and said he was optimistic that the Legislature will go along with at least some cost-cutting proposals to "lean-up government."

The governor also is sticking to his guns when it comes to the state's tax credit programs, and on Friday he renewed his call for revamping the system.

But Friday's backdrop offered an interesting contrast. The governor joined St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay at a news conference to announce that the city had lured a new company -- with one of the inducements being $220,000 in state tax credits.

Nixon's appearance came just a day after Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, a Republican often at odds with the governor, held a news conference with some St. Louis officials to tout his support for the state's historic tax credit program -- and to blast the governor for trying to curb it.

On Friday, Nixon and Slay stood together at Laclede's Landing to announce that Illinois-based Landshire Inc. will move its headquarters to one of the historic buildings on the riverfront.

The firm, which produces sandwiches and bakery goods, was getting credits under Nixon's Quality Jobs incentives for companies that create jobs with above-average salaries and with health benefits. Landshire is expected to move or create 56 jobs in St. Louis over the next five years.

St. Louis also is loaning the company $100,000, which will not need to be repaid if the company remains in the city for at least five years.

In interviews afterward, Nixon defended his stance on state tax credits, and noted that Missouri is No. 1 in the country when it comes to awarding historic tax credits.

"We believe in the need for the program," the governor said. His point, he contiuned, is that the state needed some sort of "objective criteria" or other benchmarks before awarding the aid -- and that state economic officials needed to be in charge. Now, they have little say.

"We can't continue to have an unchecked entitlement in this area," the governor said.

A few feet away, Slay enthusiastically reaffirmed in an interview the importance of historic tax credits in the redevelopment of St. Louis, especially downtown and the riverfront. Smaller Missouri communities also are now embracing the program's benefits, he said.

Besides recycling old buildings, the mayor asserted that the tax-credit program has added jobs and tax revenue for the city and the state.

Without Missouri's historic tax credits, the mayor added bluntly, the Landing and many parts of downtown St. Louis "would be dead."

Slay said the city's lobbyists have made that point clear to many Missouri legislators, and they will continue carrying that message during the final weeks of the session.

Did he mention the matter Friday to Nixon? Slay glanced in the direction of the fellow Democrat and said simply, "He knows where I stand."

And that appears to be on the same side as House Speaker Richards.

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.