JEFFERSON CITY — Just as students headed back to school this week, legislators headed back to the Capitol on Wednesday to kick off their 2006 legislative session.
The House and Senate convened for business around noon Wednesday on a largely ceremonial day reserved for laying out legislative priorities. Lawmakers will hear Republican Gov. Matt Blunt’s budget and policy proposals Wednesday and then will work about four days a week until the session ends May 12.
Republicans hold a 96-64 majority over Democrats in the House and a 22-11 majority in the Senate. All of the House seats and half of the Senate seats are up for election this year.
Having accomplished nearly their entire agenda in 2005, the Republican lawmakers and governor have less of a natural rallying point this year.
But Blunt, House Speaker Rod Jetton and Senate President Pro Tem Michael Gibbons share some goals for the session: more money for public schools, new restrictions on the use of eminent domain to take private property, more changes to the Medicaid health care program they cut last year, longer sentences for sex offenses against children and state aid to poor people struggling with high winter heating bills.
Boone County legislators have their own agendas for the session. House Minority Leader Jeff Harris, D-Columbia, explained his focus on moving Missouri forward.
Harris explained that some of the important issues span from securing the state in terms of natural disasters to denying bonds for sex offenders on appeal to prohibiting the sale of violent or explicit video games to minors. Specific issues that he intends to focus on include having lobbyists disclose their contracts so Missourians know how much money they receive to lobby on behalf of their clients.
“This will restore Missourians’ faith in government and the government process,” he said, “and get rid of much of the cynicism and skepticism arising out of the (Jack) Abramoff and (Tom) DeLay scandals.”
Harris also wants to focus on growing Missouri’s economy. He explained that Democrats think Missouri companies should have preference in state and government contracts. The preference for Missouri companies would come if the contract is, at most, 5 percent above that of out-of-state companies, he said.
“We want our tax dollars to stay in this state,” Harris said, “to grow our state’s economy, to provide support for working families and create good Missouri jobs.”
Representative Steve Hobbs, R-Mexico, explained eminent domain would be one of his most important issues.
“It’s not a political issue, it is a bipartisan issue,” he said. “We need to make sure what happened in Connecticut doesn’t happen in Missouri.”
His focus will also be on increasing funding for sheltered workshops, state-supported vocational programs designed to provide work for persons with developmental disabilities and to bring back a portion of the Ticket to Work program by modifying eligibility requirements of an employed disabled person requesting medical assistance.
Higher education will also play a major role in this session, in Hobbs’ opinion.
“We need to make sure our schools have the funds they need,” he said. “Higher education (funding) is not good enough right now. We have to make sure that we take care of the students, especially with rising tuition costs.”
Although budget forecasts remain tight, Gibbons and Jetton declared the economy improving, and along with it the state’s finances. They said it was a result of last year’s package of pro-business laws, enacted quickly and over the objections of many Democrats.
Some fear that both partisanship and intraparty disagreements could grow in 2006.
“In this election year, the temptation for all of us to put politics and party above good policy will be strong. The desire to fund new programs for your district or region will be even greater. The need to have a bill passed with your name on it to help your re-election will be hard to resist. And all of these things could make personal conflict more likely,’’ Jetton, R-Marble Hill, said in an opening day speech to House members.
But “I want all of us to do what we believe is the right thing,’’ he said. “And I want each of us, both Democrats and Republicans, to come together and vigorously debate the laws that affect all Missourians.’’
Gibbons, R-Kirkwood, urged senators to show similar restraint.
Because it’s an election year, “we must each work extra hard to have the clash of ideas essential to a robust democracy without the personal attacks or rabid partisanship that is so destructive to our quest,’’ he said.
Nichole L. Busdieker contributed to this report.