JEFFERSON CITY — It was mostly formalities and ceremony on the first day of Missouri’s 2014 legislative session, but issues such as school transfers, tax cuts, Medicaid expansion, and a budget that has already caused sparring with Gov. Jay Nixon top the agenda and will soon consume lawmakers.
Both chambers gaveled into order shortly after noon Wednesday before leaders spelled out their priorities for the session. In the House, Speaker Tim Jones, R-Eureka, addressed his colleagues and focused on tax cuts for businesses and individuals and a push for “right-to-work” legislation that would restrict businesses and unions from requiring workers to pay union dues even if they don’t join a union.
Most Democrats and some Senate Republicans oppose right-to-work, and Nixon would likely veto any bill that reaches his desk.
Senate Pro Tem Tom Dempsey, R-St. Charles, also emphasized tax cuts but said during a news conference after the Senate took care of its opening business that clarifying the state’s school transfer law will top the Senate’s agenda this year. The law allows students in unaccredited districts to transfer to neighboring districts at the cost of the unaccredited district. The problem has flared in St. Louis, where about 2,000 students have already transferred schools, and will likely make its way to Kansas City in the coming year.
“If we are able to only pass one important piece of legislation besides the budget, it needs to be a bill that will fix this problem,” Dempsey said.
The districts taking in new students say they don’t have the resources to absorb higher student populations, and the unaccredited districts say they cannot afford the cost of paying for transfers.
Jones said he would consider any measure that addressed the issue but seemed less concerned about students transferring from the unaccredited districts.
“It is a large bipartisan coalition that is very excited that for the first time in nearly 40 years, kids have an opportunity to escape the failing districts that they have been assigned to,” he said at a news conference following the House’s session.
Medicaid expansion, ethics reform
Columbia Reps. Chris Kelly and Stephen Webber, who both served on a committee in the fall that discussed reforms to Medicaid, plan to introduce a bill that would expand Missouri's current program to include all residents between 18 and 65 years of age at or below 138 percent of the federal poverty line. Under the federal Affordable Care Act, states that expand Medicaid to that level would receive substantial federal funds to pay for the newly covered.
Nixon has also identified Mediciad expansion as a top priority — it was his New Year's resolution for the state — and the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and the Associated Industries of Missouri have argued it would help reduce health care costs for businesses and bring additional money into the state.
But Republicans during the fall committee hearings and at the Capitol on Wednesday have shown little appetite for expanding Medicaid and have instead talked about reforms affecting those already covered by the system and limiting damages in medical malpractice lawsuits. Medicaid expansion legislation made little headway last session, and Webber said he's not sure the political dynamics have changed much on the issue because there is so much resistance to the federal law.
Rep. Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, said he was open to expansion as long as it was part of a larger reform package. He credited Rep. Jay Barnes, R-Jefferson City, who has crafted legislation that would expand Medicaid by subsidizing private insurance plans and expanding the managed care system, which pays private companies to develop provider networks and administer health plans.
“In the right context, I’m not against it (expanding Medicaid),” Rowden said.
Rowden plans to introduce an ethics bill that would limit the amount of individual lobbyist gifts and the total amount of gifts each quarter that legislators can accept. There are currently no limits on lobbyist gifts, but they must be reported. His bill would also include a two-year “cooling off” period before legislators could become lobbyists themselves.
The bill would not include reforms to campaign finance; other ethics legislation also limits campaign contributions, which are currently unlimited for state election.
“I tried to put together a bill I think actually has a chance of becoming law,” he said.
On tax cuts, Rowden said Republicans are likely to move bills that are more narrowly tailored than last session’s HB 253, which was vetoed by the governor who raised concerns about drastic cuts to education and mental-health spending. They will likely focus on tax cuts for small businesses and not include both business and individual taxes in the same legislation, he said.
Rep. John Wright, D-Rocheport, said he was crafting a bill that would address how certain municipal entities — such as school and fire districts — issue bonds to raise money. The legislation would expand the competitive bid process for local governments that are looking for financial advisers and underwriting companies to assist in issuing bonds. He pointed to a November auditor's report that said competitive bids could save the state millions of dollars.
“I want to make sure each municipal entity has access to the financial advice it needs in order to get the best pricing available,” Wright said.
Wright said he also plans to introduce legislation that would add 3- and 4-year-olds who qualify for free and reduced-price lunches to the state foundation formula so that districts could pay for more early-childhood programs and fill gaps in the "patchwork" of private, state and federal programs that already serve some, but not all, children. His proposal would cap the number of students that could be included to help maintain costs.
Wright said he expects to have Republican co-sponsors and the support of Republicans deeply involved in education issues.
“The research has been there for some time, and the politics have now about caught up with the research,” Wright said, citing studies that say investments in early childhood education have some of the biggest long-term payoffs of any social spending. “But it takes a long time.”
The specter of November elections — when half of the Senate and all of the House seats are up for grabs — will hang over the legislature’s activities, and some leaders will be positioning themselves for statewide races in 2016. Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, has already announced he will run for attorney general, and Jones, the House speaker, is widely expected to seek statewide office himself.
With candidacy fillings running from Feb. 25 to March 25, the pace of legislation will likely be slowed so lawmakers can defer controversial votes until they know what the election landscape looks like. Three senators and 10 House members cannot seek re-election to their current seats because they are term-limited, and three open seats in the House leave Republicans one member short of the two-thirds required to override the governor’s vetoes.
Supervising editor is Gary Castor.