'Must-have' bills linger as legislative session nears end

Sunday, May 9, 2010 | 4:28 p.m. CDT

JEFFERSON CITY— With only a week to go in Missouri's legislative session, none of the bills labeled as "must haves" by the governor and legislative leaders have yet to pass.

When the session began in January, political leaders highlighted priorities of requiring insurers to cover autism therapy, toughening drunken driving laws, expanding government ethics laws and encouraging economic development.

So far, the governor has received 31 non-budget-related bills that deal with largely less controversial issues. Some of the bills passed would strengthen prompt-pay requirements for health insurance claims, grant greater authority for the state veterinarian to restrict the movement of toxic animals and clarify that a pregnant woman may use deadly force if she thinks her fetus is in danger.

The legislature finished its first priority — the budget — the first week of May. But it still must pass several cost-saving bills that the budget assumed would become law.

Senate Majority Leader Kevin Engler, R-Farmington, has expressed frustration with the pace of House consideration.

"There's no reason for us to be working 20 hours a day when we've got most of our legislation over there," Engler said last week. "Red rover, red rover, it's time to send something over."

But last-moment deals often are made to pass key bills in the final days of the legislative session, which must end by 6 p.m. Friday.

"There's still a lot of time on the clock," Gov. Jay Nixon said recently.

House Majority Leader Steven Tilley, R-Perryville, concurred.

"A lot of things end up happening in the last couple of days," Tilley said.

Many of the bills to restructure state government — and produce savings for the budget — have passed at least one chamber and are awaiting final approval. Among them are bills that would tweak the school funding formula, eliminate two state holidays, merge some state agencies and create a new tax on Medicaid managed care companies.

Issues pending in the final week include:

  • Legislation overhauling Missouri's ethics and elections laws. Proposals would allow an early voting period, require voters to show a photo ID, re-impose campaign contribution limits, expand the power of the Missouri Ethics Commission and impose new limits on lobbyist's gifts to elected officials. The House and Senate have passed different versions of the bills.
  • Legislation requiring health insurers to cover up to $45,000 annually of intensive therapy for autistic children. The Senate passed the legislation Thursday. It needs a final vote from the House.
  • A bill to extend Missouri's ban on sending cell phone text messages while driving to every motorist, not just those age 21 and younger. The idea has bipartisan support and has been attached to multiple bills but still needs final approval.
  • A measure to change some of the state's drunken driving laws, which is scheduled to get a Senate committee hearing Monday. It must still return to the House for another vote. The bill would create new punishments for those who exceed the current legal blood alcohol level. It would also improve statewide tracking of repeat offenders.
  • Legislation to change Missouri's abortion law, which needs another vote in the House. It would require that women receive an in-person consultation about risks at least 24 hours before having an abortion and that women be given details about fetal development. Abortion providers also would have to give women a chance to see an ultrasound and listen to a heartbeat.
  • Several tax credit overhaul proposals championed by the governor. Missouri redeemed $585 million in tax credits in 2009. House leaders have shown reluctance to change the tax credit programs, which they say create jobs and help the economy. Some lawmakers and the governor say revenues lost because of tax credits could otherwise go to education and other state programs.

The governor's office began circulating a plan last week that would cap how much could go to tax credit programs, provide legislative oversight and would fund projects focused on economic development first, said Sen. Brad Lager, R-Savannah.

Lager said that with five days left, he doesn't expect the tax credit overhaul to be approved this session, but he called the proposal a good first step.

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