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Analysis: The state of legislative priorities

Sunday, March 28, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

JEFFERSON CITY — With just seven weeks left in the session, the major goals outlined by the governor and legislative leaders at the beginning of the year remain unmet, and the subsequent budget cut agenda identified by the governor has yet to be resolved by the legislature.

Since he presented his spending plan to the legislature in January, Gov. Jay Nixon has told legislators that $500 million must be cut from his proposal because of a continued decline in state revenues.

The governor has not presented a plan to lawmakers on how and where to make the cuts. And last week, the House passed a budget with a reduction of only about $200 million in the governor's original plan.

The legislature has until May 14 to approve the budget and pass legislative priorities that are currently being decided through the two chambers.

Economic development

For the second session in a row, state leaders have proposed legislation they say would create jobs in the state by offering tax breaks for business.

Last year, lawmakers passed a package of business tax breaks. Yet, unemployment in the state continues to hover around 10 percent.

James Baker, vice president for research and economic development at Missouri State University, who testified in favor of the Senate version of the plan in a committee hearing, said the plan would get Missourians back to work.

"We're going to have to make some investments somewhere," Baker said.

Senate President Pro Tem Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph, said the jobs bill will be discussed in the Senate this week as the upper chamber begins budget talks. The bill requires two more votes from the Senate and approval by the House before it can reach Nixon's desk.

But, Republicans in the Senate are demanding that any business tax break bill include restrictions in the package of tax credits that are awarded to businesses and special interests.

Ethics reform

In the past several months, three Democratic former legislators pleaded guilty in federal court of ethics violations. Also, former House Speaker Rod Jetton, R-Marble Hill, has been the subject of federal investigation for involving a pay-for-play scheme with the porn industry.

Earlier this year, the Senate gutted its ethics bill, restricting it to campaign finance enforcement.

House lawmakers said the Senate's bill was not strong enough, and House ethics committee leader Rep. Kevin Wilson, R-Nesho, subsequently proposed a bill that included provisions not contained in the Senate's version: a $1,000 limit on lobbyists' gifts, making bribery by appointees and elected officials a class D felony and a $5,000 cap on campaign contributions.

The House bill was approved by a committee last week. It now must be approved by the House before moving to the Senate — which removed campaign contribution caps in its version of the bill.

House Republican Leader Steven Tilley, R-Perryville, said he did not agree with contribution limits because the current system of unlimited donations is "more open and transparent." Tilley said the current system does not compel donors to form numerous political committees to get money to lawmakers.

He said the House could pass a "stronger" ethics bill than the Senate.

Tilley originally had proposed a complete ban on legislators taking gifts from lobbyists.

DWI enforcement

Late last year, following a St. Louis Post-Dispatch investigation that uncovered inconsistencies in drunk driving enforcement in St. Louis area courts, Nixon formed a task force to seek reform.

Bills requiring repeat offenders to be tried in state court, increasing penalties for suspects who refuse a blood test, and limiting the removal of drunk driving offenses from criminal records after 10 years to offenders who were not convicted more than once have been proposed by Republicans in both chambers and have bipartisan support.

The House bill is stalled in the Rules Committee, and the Senate bill is awaiting a final vote.

Mike Boland, a spokesman for Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said he is "hopeful" the proposals will pass soon.

"It's going at its unfortunately normal pace," Boland said of the legislature's advancement of the proposals.

R. Dale Findlay, executive director of the Missouri Safety Council, said if a bill doesn't pass, repeat offenders will "slip through the cracks." He said it's not too late to pass the reforms.

"They haven't been moving as quickly as everyone would like them to," Findlay said.

Autism insurance coverage

After the House leadership killed legislation last year to mandate autism coverage in health insurance, Nixon made it a priority in his 2010 legislative agenda.

But differences between the House and Senate have kept the measure from reaching the governor's desk in the current session.

While separate proposals have been approved by the House and the Senate, both chambers need to approve the same proposal before it can be signed by Nixon.

Senate leader Shields said he is confident that the proposal can pass this year. He also said he expects passage of the legislature's other proposals, even with less state revenue in the budget.

"I think this is an important issue for Missouri's citizens," Shields said.

Ron Ekstrand, CEO of Touchpoint Autism, said lawmakers have told him they are optimistic and hopeful that a proposal will pass.

Ekstrand said insurance companies are "discriminating" against autism spectrum disorders patients by denying them care.

"To refuse this, to me, seems criminal,"  Ekstrand said.

 


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