FEW HIGH-PROFILE ISSUES AWAIT LAWMAKERS UPON RETURN
With Republicans in simultaneous control of the legislature and governor’s office for the first time since 2008, GOP leaders touted an aggressive agenda when the 2017 legislative session began in January. When lawmakers left the Capitol for their annual spring break, however, they had granted final passage to just three bills, and are expected to tackle few major issues when they return on March 27 for the session’s final weeks.
After taking swift action to enact so-called “right-to-work” legislation intended to undermine the effectiveness of labor unions, a top Republican priority, the legislature has moved slowly. The only other two bills sent to Gov. Eric Greitens won final passage right before the break. One would tighten standards for the admissibility of expert witnesses in court cases, while the other would impose a civil penalty of up to $10,000 per violation on farmers who improperly use certain herbicides. Both await gubernatorial action.
Although spring break marks the symbolic midpoint of the annual legislative session, this year’s session is already about 60 percent complete, with just seven weeks remaining until the constitutionally mandated adjournment date of May 12. But much of that time is expected to be dominated by work on the state budget.
The chambers have traded several bills seeking various changes to civil court proceedings that would make it more difficult for individual Missourians to bring lawsuits against business over alleged wrongdoing, and most appear likely to win final passage. Aside from those measures, the fate of most pending major bills is uncertain.
While Greitens centered his campaign for governor on improving the ethical climate in state government, Republican legislative leaders have shown little enthusiasm for the subject. Although early in session the House passed a bill to place new restrictions on gifts from lobbyists to state elected officials, it has languished in the Senate ever since. A comprehensive package of anti-corruption measures proposed by House Democrats received a committee hearing in late January but hasn’t been allowed to advance.
Another high-profile bill that has stalled would change the security measures required on Missouri driver’s licenses to comply with the federal Real ID Act. Starting in 2018, the federal government has said it will no longer allow non-compliant IDs, like Missouri’s, to be used to board planes or enter federal buildings. The House on Feb. 21 granted first-round approval to a Real ID bill on a voice vote but hasn’t taken the second, recorded vote needed to send it to the Senate due to opposition from some conservative Republicans who say compliance would infringe on personal privacy.
Conservatives concerned about privacy have also blocked legislation to allow Missouri to establish a statewide prescription drug monitoring program to combat opioid abuse. Missouri is the only state that hasn’t established such a program. As a result, several local governments in Missouri have created their own monitoring programs.
One issue the legislature definitely won’t address this year is the looming transportation funding crisis. House Transportation Committee Chairman Bill Reiboldt, R-Neosho, told the Missourinet in a March 23 story that lawmakers won’t pursue transportation funding legislation this year and instead will seek to create a task force to study the issue.
The Missouri Department of Transportation has virtually eliminated new road construction in recent years and in the near future isn’t expected to have the financial resources necessary to maintain the state’s nearly 34,000-mile state high highway system. Missouri’s 17-cent-per-gallon fuel tax hasn’t increased in 21 years.
HOUSE COMMITTEE SET TO CONSIDER FY 2018 STATE BUDGET
The House Budget Committee on March 28 is scheduled to begin debate on the 13 appropriations bills that make up the roughly $27.6 state operating budget for the 2018 fiscal year.
When he presented his proposed state budget on Feb. 2, Republican Gov. Eric Greitens touted $572 million in proposed spending cuts from FY 2017. However, the governor’s plan redirected the bulk of the savings from those cuts to increase spending elsewhere.
The House committee proposal omits most of the governor’s proposed cuts, as well as his recommended spending increases. The committee plan, however, largely leaves in place the deep cuts to higher education Greitens had requested, although it restructures them so the cuts are more evenly distributed across Missouri’s public colleges and universities.
On K-12 funding, the committee version calls for a $48 million increase in basic state aid for local school districts instead of the $3 million the governor had recommended. The committee version also includes $36 million for student transportation costs that Greitens had wanted to eliminate.
Also, the committee version rejects the governor’s plan to save about $52 million state revenue by eliminating nursing home and in-home care services for more than 20,000 disabled Missourians. However, the committee plan would help fund those services by eliminating the so-called “circuit breaker” tax credit for low-income elderly and disabled Missourians who rent their homes.
Because Greitens submitted his proposed budget to the legislature weeks later than is normal, the budget process is far behind schedule. With a constitutional deadline of May 5 to finish work on the budget, lawmakers have just six weeks for the House and Senate to pass their versions of the appropriations bills and then resolve any differences between the chambers before agreeing to a unified spending plan to send to the gove