With new leaders in charge, Missouri lawmakers return to action

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JEFFERSON CITY — Wednesday marks the beginning of a new era in Missouri state government, with new leaders running the show after last year’s debacle over a scandal-plagued chief executive.

Although Republicans hold an iron grip on state politics, the House and Senate are under new management, not to mention the governor’s office, where Mike Parson enters his first full legislative session after taking over for Eric Greitens in June.

Lawmakers are set to begin their annual 4½-month-long journey at noon with a May 17 deadline.

Here’s a look at some of the issues expected to be debated by the 163-member House and the 34-member Senate:

Initiative petitions and Clean Missouri: Republicans are coalescing around plans to tighten access to the initiative petition process after voters approved a constitutional amendment that directly targets the legislative branch.

The GOP could move to reverse at least some of those changes — the most controversial is a new redistricting plan — by placing another measure on the ballot in 2020.

Some legislators are moving to exempt some of their emails from public disclosure after Missourians voted to subject lawmakers to open-records statutes.

Other proposals, which would require voter approval, would make it harder for constitutional amendments by raising the threshold necessary to pass a constitutional amendment.

Prescription drug monitoring: The exit of former Sen. Rob Schaaf, R-St. Joseph, because of term limits may allow lawmakers to finally enact a plan to address the opioid abuse crisis.

Schaaf had singlehandedly blocked efforts to approve the program citing privacy issues.

Newly minted Senate President Pro Tem Dave Schatz, R-Sullivan, supports the creation of a PDMP to bring Missouri in line with the rest of the nation.

But, he isn’t guaranteeing its passage. “We’re still going to have mixed feelings in our caucus about how we move forward,” Schatz said.

Low-Income Housing Tax Credits: Though Parson criticized Greitens’ move in late 2017 to end Missouri’s involvement in the program, the new governor wants lawmakers to reform the incentive program so that the state can again issue the credits.

School aid formula: In September, Rep. David Wood, R-Versailles, sent every superintendent in the state a letter outlining several changes he’s considering to how the state funds schools.

Under state law, most of the money that goes to K-12 schools is appropriated through the “foundation formula,” which seeks to balance state funding between districts that can afford to raise their own taxes and those that can’t.

Budget: Democrats expect the effects of a 2014 tax cut to manifest next fiscal year, forcing the state to make more tough budget choices, even as the Missouri’s economy is humming.

“As House Democrats warned then, this tax giveaway for rich is resulting in serious consequences for everyone else,” said state Rep. Kip Kendrick, D-Columbia.

But, budget planners are still anticipating a 2 percent growth in general revenue next fiscal year. Incoming state Treasurer Scott Fitzpatrick, a Republican, said recently “that the state’s finances are on solid ground.”

Online sales taxes: After the U.S. Supreme Court opened the door for states to collect online sales tax collections in June, Parson began mapping out a plan to bring lawmakers on board with the idea.

He dispatched his top tax expert to try and convince rank-and-file Republicans that the collection of millions of dollars of new tax revenue from out-of-state retailers will help shore up the budget.

Gambling expansion: After failing to advance the legalization of sports betting in recent years, lawmakers in both chambers are hoping 2019 is the year that Missouri allows bettors to wager money on their favorite teams.

They also are pushing bills that would legalize video gambling at trucks stops, restaurants and bars.

Schatz said he’s going to move forward cautiously. “I don’t want to subject every person to ringing bells and slot machines when they are going into a convenience store to get a gallon of milk,” he said.

Earnings tax: Although the issue has languished in recent years, Sen. Bill Eigel, R-Weldon Spring, says he wants to end the collection of a 1 percent earnings tax imposed on people who work in St. Louis and Kansas City.

City officials say the repeal of the tax would gut their budgets and hurt services ranging from police and fire protection to road maintenance.

Workforce development: Parson has made workforce development a key plank in his platform, saying the state needs alter the way it provides educational opportunities for students by offering more certificates, apprenticeships, and alternative credentialing programs.

“In order to ensure Missouri is on the right track, we must give our students and workers the skills and tools to be successful,” Parson said.

Higher education: Schatz said he wants lawmakers to consider a plan that would limit how much colleges and universities can raise fees, saying students need to know how much their education will cost before committing to a particular institution.

“I think the rising cost of higher education is something we’ve got to get our hands around,” Schatz said.

Transportation taxes: After voters turned down a plan in November to raise the gas tax by 10-cents over four years, Parson says he wants to find other ways to generate revenue to maintain and expand the state’s roads and bridges.

Lawmakers could look at toll roads, increasing motor vehicle registration fees or other taxes in response to the rejection of the tax hike.

“Missouri’s infrastructure needs are long overdue and now is the time to take action,” Parson said.

Debtors prison: A bipartisan effort to end debtors prisons in Missouri could be brewing.

Currently, Missouri allows judges to impose jail sentences on people who cannot pay the costs of previous jail stays, resulting in them being sent back to jail.

Rep. Justin Hill, R-Lake Saint Louis, is sponsoring legislation that would address private probation companies, which he says are contributing to the problem.

The issue also is on the radar of Rep. Bruce DeGroot, R-Chesterfield.

Tort reform: Republicans will again go up against trial attorneys in an annual battle over tort reform.

Among the items on the table are changes that would limit who can file lawsuits in an attempt to rein in the number of high profile cases that are brought in St. Louis by out-of-state plaintiffs.

“The overall goal is that we make Missouri an attractive place to do business,” Schatz said.

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