COLUMBIA — Local legislators say three big, unresolved issues from the last legislative session — Medicaid expansion, tax reform and bonds for infrastructure needs — will command considerable attention in the 2014 legislative session.
Lawmakers will return to the Capitol at noon Wednesday for the session’s opening day.
"I think it’s going to be a challenge this year," said Rep. Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia. "There seems to be a lot of large issues on the table unresolved or compounding on the ones from last year.”
“The most significant issue facing this assembly is whether to expand health care," said veteran Rep. Chris Kelly, D-Columbia. "It would mean many jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars in the economy of the state.”
Gov. Jay Nixon and Republican legislative leaders are at odds over whether Missouri should expand its Medicaid eligibility to thousands of lower-income adults, as the federal Affordable Care Act envisions.
Nixon’s administration estimates 300,000 Missourians could be added to the program if the state takes advantage of the federal law’s provisions that pay 100 percent of the expansion costs for the first three years, then 90 percent after that, to states that raise adult Medicaid eligibility.
As of December 2013, Missouri was one of 23 states that had not made a move yet toward Medicaid expansion.
Rowden served on a House interim committee that studied the proposed expansion.
In its report, he explained, the committee said the state needs to reform the current Medicaid program to provide better controls while also saving money.
Republicans have said for months that relying on the federal government’s promise to pay for the increased costs — when the federal government’s own deficits have ballooned in recent years — could force the state to pay for the expansion from its own general revenue funds.
“These issues are important, and to fail to do them is to hurt the economy of the state,” Kelly said.
Rep. Stephen Webber, D-Columbia, agreed, saying that passing Medicaid expansion anytime soon doesn’t look likely, even though it would benefit Missourians greatly.
“The reality is that we’re just foolish to turn down assistance for Missouri,” Webber said. “It could cover Missourians and education without taxing a single Missourian anything more.”
Kelly also looks toward getting lawmakers to put a bond issue on the November statewide election ballot to provide funds for rebuilding the Fulton State Mental Hospital, repairing the state Capitol infrastructure and allotting funds to the MU College of Engineering for facility repairs.
Kelly plans to sponsor legislation that would address the state infrastructure needs and transportation tax together, a plan that has been proposed in the past; however, he intends to broaden it for general state infrastructure.
Like Kelly, Rowden is committed to pushing the bonding bill.
“I think that’s a huge benefit for us locally, here in Columbia, and around the state,” he said. “It’s a good way to bring capital investment dollars into our campuses.
“We’re doing things we need to do as a state.”
For Webber, the biggest issue facing the legislature is tax reform. He said with the economy improving, there is a question of whether to continue to put the increase in tax revenues toward education, or to create a business tax cut for the wealthy.
“I come down pretty strong on the side that the money needs to go toward education,” he said.
Webber said both higher education and K-12 need the investment, citing a $600 million shortfall in the amount of money going into the K-12 foundation formula, as required by the 2005 law that created the current formula.
However, members of the GOP leadership have said they will again push for tax reform that focuses more on tax cuts than increased education spending.
"We are definitely going to debate and move out of the House another tax reform and tax relief package because we believe that by having a certain reasonable tax system, we entice job creators to grow in our state, to move to our state, to create more jobs," House Speaker Tim Jones said in an interview with St. Louis Public Radio.
Webber plans to push a bill that would ban discrimination in the workplace based on sexual orientation.
Rowden is working on an ethics reform bill and a few economic development bills that would help the university, he said.
State Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, was not available to comment for this story. But he’s prefiled both a bill and a proposed constitutional amendment for the upcoming session.
His proposed law, Senate Bill 498, would require health insurance navigators to be bonded and would prevent the unlawful release of private identifying information.
He has again proposed an amendment about the right to bear arms. No known as Senate Joint Resolution 36, it would add language to the Missouri Constitution that states that a citizen has the right to keep and bear arms in defense of family, in addition to the existing rights of defending the home, person and property. It also would remove the current language that the right to keep and bear arms does not justify carrying concealed weapons, since Missouri now has a concealed-carry law.
Rep. Caleb Jones, R-California, whose district includes southern Boone County and parts of south Columbia, also wasn’t available to comment for this story.
Supervising editor is Gary Castor.