A look ahead to the legislative session

Jan 4, 2012

Missouri lawmakers return to Jefferson City today for the start of this year’s legislative session.  The year 2011 was marked by House and Senate Republicans fighting with each other over tax credits and redistricting, while still managing to take pot shots at Democratic Governor Jay Nixon’s handling of the state budget.  Marshall Griffin takes a look at how the 2012 session may play out.

Last year’s failure to pass wide-ranging tax credit bills during both the regular and special sessions has led some lawmakers to consider a different approach:  crafting several smaller bills that cover just one or a few similar-subject tax credits instead of one all-encompassing bill.  House Majority Floor Leader Tim Jones supports the approach: “I’ve heard from a lot of the public that have said, ‘we do not like omnibus bills,’ and I agree with the public on that…you’re generally asking for trouble with those…they get complicated, they start involving other subjects, so I do prefer to pass those in smaller pieces.”

The leader of the Missouri Senate, President Pro-tem Rob Mayer, has also expressed some support for the idea.  But he maintains that reforming the state’s tax credit system as a whole is a higher priority: “There’ll be discussions, continued discussions, about tax credit reform, and the Speaker and I are gonna have the opportunity to sit down and talk privately, so I’ll have a better idea as we move forward just what we can do in that area.”

But the House and Senate’s core positions on tax credits remain unchanged:  The House favoring expansion or at least maintaining the status quo, while a core group of Senators want to phase out ALL tax credits, or at least make them subject to each year’s state budget.  Last year’s tax credit battle also left some collateral damage – namely, the St. Louis Police local control bill.  Despite easily passing the House, Senate leaders refused to take it up unless they got their way on tax credits, and the bill died on the last day of the regular session.  This year, backers have changed their strategy, as the bill will originate in the Senate instead of the House.  It’s sponsored again by Democrat Joseph Keaveny of St. Louis: “We hope to get it out of the Senate early and get it over to the House, so we can get it accomplished before the last, before the end of the session, before other things that need to be addressed.”

Lawmakers will also, of course, focus on the one thing they’re required by law to pass: next year’s state budget – and once again they’re facing another shortfall, with the latest estimate at 500 million dollars.  Rep. Tim Jones continues to favor trimming the fat wherever possible: “I constantly am of the opinion that government has to be watched, that it has to be trimmed, that it can always do things better, more efficient(ly).”

The lack of sufficient state revenues, combined with the lack of federal dollars from Washington, will likely mean more cuts to the state budget.  That could again include Governor Nixon’s practice in recent years of withholding money from various state agencies, despite being allotted that money by lawmakers: “It’ll continue to be a challenging budget environment…finding efficiencies that can improve government services, while at the same time making sure that we are getting a balanced budget, and continuing to do the things that are necessary as Chief Executive to make sure it’s balanced throughout the year.”

Almost every year, there’s an issue or priority that can either distract or disrupt the flow of legislative business.  Last year it was redistricting.  This year is an election year, and because of the new maps approved last year, several lawmakers are shifting districts, attempting to switch chambers, and in some cases running for statewide office.  There’s also the governor’s race and a presidential election this year.  Marvin Overby is a political science professor at the University of Missouri – Columbia: “Historically we don’t expect for a whole lot to get done in election years, because people are looking down the road, gearing up for campaigns, and trying to sort of hold their finger to the wind to see which way things are gonna turn out.”

Lawmakers will also wrestle over whether to tweak the funding formula for K-through-12 schools, consider suspending the federal prevailing wage for construction workers in Joplin and other disaster areas, and take up bills addressing national health care and illegal immigration.