JEFFERSON CITY — Leadership on both sides of the aisle in the Missouri Senate laid out their party’s goals for the 2020 session in a news conference Thursday, setting the stage for conflict on a wide range of issues.
At the top of both Republican and Democrat agendas is the battle over Clean Missouri. Republicans have taken issue with a part of the amendment, approved by 62% of voters in November 2018, that would create a “nonpartisan demographer” position. The person chosen to fill the position would redraw the state’s district lines, which has caused concerns that Republicans could lose seats.
State Sen. Caleb Rowden said his party hopes to send the question of how to redraw legislative boundaries back to voters.
“It’s something that I think has universal support within our caucus, and we don’t see that all that often,” Rowden said.
Senate Democratic Leader Gina Walsh, D-Bellefontaine Neighbors, said her caucus will continue to defend Clean Missouri.
“It’s going to be more difficult, because it’s a top priority for Sen. Schatz and Sen. Rowden’s caucus,” Walsh said. “So we’ll just move forward and see. It’s always tough, the things my caucus does in this chamber are always tough.”
The question of gun violence also topped both party’s agendas.
“If I sit out on my back porch on a Saturday night, I can hear gunfire coming out of guns that are made for only one reason, and that reason is to kill people,” Walsh said. “We don’t need those kind of guns on the street. And I will stick to that opinion.”
Republicans reiterated their unwillingness to back any legislation they believe would infringe on Second Amendment rights, and Sen. Dave Schatz, R-Sullivan, said increasing law enforcement numbers could help curtail gun violence. He filed legislation to remove the residency requirement to be a law enforcement officer for St. Louis.
“Currently there is a shortfall of somewhere between 125 to 150 officers, and we believe that barrier being there, they’re having a difficult time filling positions,” Schatz said. “One of the things we can do for public safety is put more law enforcement on the street, so removing that residency requirement is something I think will be beneficial and helpful.”
Schatz also expressed support for a motor fuel tax to help pay for road and bridge projects, placing himself at odds with State House Speaker Elijah Haahr, R-Springfield, who said Wednesday “there is not a lot of appetite in our caucus” for an increase in the tax.
“I believe there is a general consensus among people that understand the transportation funding issue that we have to do something,” Schatz said. “The realities of being in an election year, and getting something through the process, is gonna be a difficult one ... I think the best thing we can do is put forward a gas tax to address transportation needs. But political realities make that very difficult at best.”
In last year’s session, the Senate Conservative Caucus opposed several pieces of legislation filed by more progressive Republicans in the Senate, going so far as to filibuster. Rowden said that despite differences of opinion, he thinks the Conservative Caucus maintains a good relationship with its Republican colleagues.
“They are what they are, they believe what they believe, they do what they do and we do the same thing,” Rowden said. “Sometimes those things end up on a collision course, and when they do we deal with it. I’m gonna work as hard as I can to make sure those guys get stuff done that they wanna get done.”
Rowden also emphasized the need for civility across the aisle in order to get legislation passed.
“The Senate’s a place where you gotta get along,” Rowden said. “It’s a place where you gotta respect each other and be civil to each other and understand there are going to be differences.”
An issue both sides expressed approval for was the Wayfair tax, which would allow the state to charge sales tax on purchases from out-of-state businesses such as online retailers. States gained the ability to pass the tax after a Supreme Court case, South Dakota v. Wayfair, and Missouri is one of the few that have yet to implement it.
City and county governments, including in Columbia and Boone County, have struggled with lagging sales tax revenue given the increase in untaxed, online shopping.
“I’m all for it. I wanna protect the brick-and-mortars,” Walsh said of approving the tax. “I’ve got a lot of small businesses in my district that are brick-and-mortar stores, and I heard even more people this year, especially older people, saying ‘Oh I never entered a mall to go Christmas shopping this year,’ or ‘I never entered a store.’ Well, the backbone of our economy in some of these small towns are these small businesses.”
Rowden said that generally, there aren’t many lawmakers who oppose the Wayfair tax.
“You’re starting from a different, maybe more advantageous place than you do with a lot of other bills,” Rowden said. “It’s just a matter of what the details look like. There’s gonna be an offsetting tax cut of some sort ... We have to be strategic and careful about that, but I think there’s a chance.”