General Assembly completes flurry of activity before spring break

Sunday, March 18, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 1:13 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri lawmakers left for their weeklong spring break Thursday, leaving Gov. Matt Blunt with one victory and two major legislative defeats to close out the first half of the session.

In the week before taking their break legislators approved a plan to increase cable competition while blocking provisions on St. Louis city schools and the sale of MOHELA assets.

Lawmakers handed the governor a measure he endorsed to strip community access television, or CATV, from local franchise restrictions — allowing statewide digital and cable competition.

Along with passage of the CATV bill, the legislature has passed his supplemental budget requests including $60 million for community health centers. Just before leaving on break, the House also approved a bill to phase out the franchise tax for businesses that provide health care coverage for their workers.

With the governor watching over the chamber, 35 House Republicans joined with Democrats to reject the Republican leadership’s plan to address the St. Louis city school problems Blunt had cited in his State of the State address in January. During his speech, Blunt said St. Louis schools were “failing to provide the basic education” to the students.

Later in the session, a Democratic filibuster blocked approval of the governor’s plan to sell off assets of the state’s college loan program, MOHELA, to fund building construction projects across the state. The blocked MOHELA bill also includes the governor’s proposal for university performance standards and limits on tuition hikes.

The other major issue in the governor’s January address to lawmakers — restructuring the state’s Medicaid program to provide health care coverage for lower-income families — has yet to face a vote in either chamber. The Senate’s Medicaid bill did not clear committee until the day before the legislature left for its vacation.

It is normal for a legislative session to start off slow and complete its business in a flurry of last-week actions. Just before leaving on break, the House also approved a bill to phase out the franchise tax for businesses that provide health care coverage for their workers.

“At the halfway mark the legislature has accomplished quite a lot and they have a lot to be proud of,” said the governor’s spokeswoman Jessica Robinson said. “And there’s certainly still work to be done, but it is work that is manageable in the time that is left.”

“I think there’s nothing wrong with going slow,” said Senate Health Committee Chairman Chuck Purgason, R-Coalfield. “Usually when you work slow, you’re more careful of what you pass, making sure that you do everything right.”

Monday and Tuesday, Democrats embarked on a 14-hour filibuster to block a Republican vote and find a compromise on the MOHELA sale. Purgason noted, however, that the filibuster didn’t interfere with Senate proceedings, since much of it took place at night.

Sen. Wes Shoemyer, D-Clarence, said although the filibuster increased the possibility of a compromise, the action could have been avoided.

“It took us about 20-some hours in before negotiations started,” Shoemyer said. “We could have done those negotiations three months ago, 15 months ago.”

Shoemyer said legislators made progress during the filibuster, “even though there may have been tempers.”

But not everyone saw a need for the filibuster.

“If you’re not going to be part of the solution, you remain a part of the problem,” said House Speaker Pro Tem, Carl Bearden, R-St. Charles.

Purgason also questioned why Democrats would filibuster the MOHELA talks when he said more pressing and controversial issues, such as Medicaid reform and a bill nullifying local ordinances governing agriculture, topped the agenda.

And although Republican Sen. Charlie Shields’ Medicaid bill, which focuses on preventative care and healthy lifestyle choices, passed through the Health and Mental Health Committee, Shoemyer said “there’s some unfinished business.”

Bearden said one of his personal priorities was finalizing the Medicaid bill.

“A lot of work is being done,” Bearden said. “Just because it hasn’t been seen on the floor doesn’t mean it hasn’t been worked on.”

But differences remain.

Shoemyer, like other Democrats, said he wanted the General Assembly to reinstate the health care cuts legislators introduced in 2005, when the state was struggling financially. To help fund their reintroduction, Shoemyer said he’d support a sales tax on prepared foods.

“You let them know that this money is going for the poor, the indigent, the disabled,” Shoemyer said. “The Medicaid bill we’re looking at today, it’s just about a reshuffling of the deck. It’s a bill more about policies than about substance.”

Purgason and Shoemyer said they anticipated the General Assembly passing a Medicaid bill later this session.

Robinson said Blunt was happy with the talks legislators have had on Medicaid, adding discussions were “all part of the process.”

The House Budget Committee’s chairman, Rep. Allen Icet, R-St. Louis County, said the Budget Committee approved a budget Wednesday and talks would begin on the House floor after spring break.

Icet said he expected education funding, Medicaid and Medicare to be the budget’s main issues.

Lawmakers will return March 26. The session adjourns for the year at 6 p.m. May 18.

Sarah Wire contributed to this report.

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