Controversial amendment could stall immigration reform

Tuesday, May 13, 2008 | 10:33 p.m. CDT; updated 5:56 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY — Whispers of a special session began circulating the Capitol on Tuesday after a controversial amendment was added to an immigration reform bill, a piece of legislation the governor has specified as one of his highest priorities.

The amendment, which gives the state attorney general the power to investigate companies that try to hide the employment of illegal workers by misclassifying them, had been a part of an earlier Senate bill and was removed by the House earlier in the week.

Chairman of the House Immigration Committee Rep. Jerry Nolte, R-Gladstone, said adding the amendment means the bill may not pass through the House before the end of the session, which is in three days.

“Misclassification (of employees) has some relevance to illegal immigrants but it does open a new chapter of law on the bill,” Nolte said. “Unless something happens that’s beyond my thought process, it doesn’t look good.”

Nolte said House members are worried the power given to the attorney general by the amendment is too broad. “Deal breaker wouldn’t be the right word, but I’ve definitely got a lot of concerns,” he said.

Immigration reform is one of Gov. Matt Blunt’s key issues for the session, and Blunt has previously said he would consider holding a special session if the state legislature cannot pass the bill. This is the second time the Senate has considered an over-arching immigration reform plan.

The plan would require people to prove they are U.S. citizens or are in the country legally when applying for public benefits, and it would also penalize businesses that knowingly hire illegal immigrants and would require the Missouri State Highway Patrol to get special federal immigration training.

Sen. Scott Rupp, R-Wentzville, is the Senate sponsor of the immigration bill and spoke against the amendment by citing previous problems with its passage. The amendment has been attached to several bills over the last three years and has faced consistent challenges in the House.

Rupp said the bill already contained provisions to penalize companies who hire illegal immigrants and called the amendment “radioactive” in the lower chamber.

“The way it is drafted, there are legitimate concerns,” Rupp said. “I think his argument transcends into a labor argument.”

When the amendment was approved with overwhelming vocal consent by Senators on both sides of the aisle, Rupp placed his head on his desk.

Rupp said if the bill does not pass through the House before Friday, he would support holding a special legislative session to address the issue.

“If by some grace of god we come to an agreement, there will be time,” Rupp said. “If for some reason something doesn’t get done, I will personally ask the governor to call a special (session).”

In other legislative news, a bill that would cap property taxes for Missourians received overwhelming support in the House.

The bill, a measure designed to keep property tax rates from increasing despite the increasing assessment in the value of homes, passed with a vote of 146-7.

Under current law, the taxable percentage of a home’s assessed value remains the same even if the value of the house increases. This bill would make the taxable percentage decrease as the value of the home increases so that the amount of taxes owed remains the same.

“Some of those fixes will give low-income people and seniors more options to stay in their homes after it is reassessed,” said Rep. Judy Baker, D-Columbia.

But not all were pleased.

A portion of the bill would give a real estate tax break to Bombardier, a Canadian aircraft company, and their property next to the Kansas City airport, said Rep. Rachel Bringer, D-Palmyra.

“Why give a huge tax break to a Canadian company? It’s unfair when so many of our smaller companies are paying taxes while bigger corporations get breaks on 6,000 acres of land that the state is losing revenue on,” Bringer said.

Insure Missouri also made its way out of committee Monday night as Rep. Robert Schaaf, R-St. Joseph, prepared the bill to be debated on the House floor.

Schaaf was initially waiting on the Hospital Association to compromise on certificate-of-need reform, which requires hospitals to prove the necessity of an expansion before beginning it, before proceeding with the bill, saying the association had the political muscle to kill any piece of legislation they were opposed to.

Although the Hospital Association, along with the Missouri Health Care Association and the St. Louis Area Business Health Coalition, have sent a letter to Schaaf saying they will not negotiate, Schaaf has now added language to the bill to address certificate-of-need reform, which he said he thinks will ultimately help the bill pass the House.

“I’m putting this bill in a position to pass,” Schaaf said. The transparency measures put in the bill originally were not enough to lower prices for the insured consumer, he said.

“Transparency does not create competition,” Schaaf said. “Transparency makes the market work better.”

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