JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri legislators convened their 2009 session Wednesday with an emphasis on job creation in a struggling economy that has created financial concerns not only for individuals but for the state itself.
The newly elected legislative leaders also laid out goals of making higher education and health care more affordable to Missourians while encouraging new energy sources, including the potential construction of a nuclear power plant.
As it has the past six years, the legislature will be fully controlled by Republicans, who hold 23-11 Senate majority over Democrats and 89-74 House advantage. But Republican lawmakers will have to work with Democratic Gov.-elect Jay Nixon, who takes over for Republican Gov. Matt Blunt on Monday.
Nixon's budget adviser projects a $342 million budget shortfall in the remaining six months of Missouri's fiscal year, and legislative budget leaders are preparing to make additional spending cuts for the budget year starting July 1.
Members of the 95th General Assembly took an oath Wednesday to uphold the U.S. and Missouri constitutions and to refrain from bribes. Then they elected their leaders.
As expected, senators chose St. Joseph hospital executive Charlie Shields as their president pro tem and House members elected Joplin bowling alley owner Ron Richard as their speaker.
In his session-opening remarks, Shields used a corporate analogy to describe a state that he said is merely in "the middle of the pack" in important rankings such as median family income, college graduates and health care.
"In short, we are a $23 billion organization without a long-term vision and operating without the benefit of a strategic plan," Shields said.
He laid out a three-part goal of continuing to improve Missouri's business climate, expanding health care coverage to more of the state's 700,000 uninsured residents and improving Missouri's educational system from birth to college. The latter initiative includes stronger preschool programs, support for stay-at-home parents and a more powerful Coordinating Board for Higher Education, Shields said.
Richard focused much of his first speech on pocketbook issues and called on lawmakers to pass a family recovery plan that focuses on creating jobs, tax relief, affordable health care and developing alternative energy sources.
"I believe if you give Missourians the opportunity to obtain good-paying jobs that so many of the other problems they face will be addressed," Richard said.
Richard and Shields both made it a priority to expand the Quality Jobs program, which gives incentives to certain businesses that add jobs paying at least the average county or state wage and covering at least half the employees' health insurance premiums.
Nixon said he wants lawmakers to pass his Show Me Jobs plan by their annual spring break in mid-March. One component of that is expanding the Quality Jobs program, most likely by removing or raising the cap on the amount of tax credits that may be issued to businesses.
"We need to get going on a plan to get people back to work," Nixon said in an interview Tuesday.
The session began in a bipartisan spirit.
New Senate Majority Leader Kevin Engler, R-Farmington, hosted statewide officials, lawmakers and a couple hundred other Democrats and Republicans at his home for a mid-December party. Nixon addressed Republican senators at pre-session retreat. And Republican legislative leaders issued statements of support in December for Nixon's job plan.
In a traditional show of bipartisanship, House Minority Leader Paul LeVota declined his own nomination as speaker Wednesday and threw his support behind Richard.
"The people of Missouri are expecting us to work together to solve their problems, regardless of political party," said LeVota, D-Independence.
Added Senate Minority Leader Victor Callahan: "We don't have time really to bicker."
"There are way too many Missourians out of a job, there are way too many homeowners losing their homes, and I believe those economic issues — and this economic crisis — transcends partisan differences," Callahan said.