JEFFERSON CITY • Hoping to ease tension with angry members of the Missouri Legislature, Gov. Eric Greitens used a tactical maneuver Wednesday to try to save his appointees to key boards and commissions.
The governor’s move, which came just minutes before the House and Senate gaveled in for the first day of the 2018 legislative session, will give senators more time to consider his controversial appointees to the state Board of Education.
“We’re here to help teachers, students, and families succeed,” Greitens said. “We found a great group of leaders in our state to work with us. I appreciate the Senate reaching out, to let us know they want ample time to hear these appointees.”
The governor made the five appointments to the eight-member board last year, while the Legislature wasn’t in session. In such cases, the Legislature would have only 30 days to act on the appointments; they would be voided if no vote was held.
To buy more time, Greitens withdrew on Wednesday morning his five appointments, then re-appointed them. Now, lawmakers have until the end of the current session in May to take action on them.
But because the appointees can’t be seated until they are confirmed, the Republican governor’s gambit also means the board is in effect shut down until — and unless — the Legislature approves them.
Greitens’ move won support from Senate GOP leaders.
“I believe allowing the Senate additional time to weigh in on these very important positions on the state Board of Education was a positive decision by the governor,” said Senate Majority Floor Leader Mike Kehoe, R-Jefferson City.
But rank-and-file senators remain outraged at Greitens after he spent four months stacking the state Board of Education with allies, who then voted — before they had been formally confirmed by the Senate — to fire Education Commissioner Margie Vandeven.
Republican Sens. Gary Romine of Farmington and Rob Schaaf of St. Joseph vowed to block the confirmation of the five new members, as well as appointees to other boards.
“Probably, the chance of them being confirmed is near zero,” Schaaf said. “I’m not pleased with what happened.”
Senate Minority Leader Gina Walsh, D-Bellefontaine Neighbors, said the standoff would bar the state board from hiring a replacement for Vandeven.
“We’re going to have nobody running the Board of Education,” Walsh said.
The contentious flare-up showed that lingering friction between the second-year governor and lawmakers could again be a dominating feature of the upcoming 4½ month session.
After a year in which Republican lawmakers and Greitens combined to push through a series of business-friendly, anti-union initiatives, the GOP is again promoting a conservative agenda heading toward the November 2018 election season.
“I think it’s fair to say we will leave this chamber and this state in better shape than where we found it,” House Speaker Todd Richardson, R-Poplar Bluff, said.
The governor has not released a blueprint for the session, but he has indicated he wants businesses to have a veterans’ hiring preference. Greitens, a former Navy SEAL, also wants to eliminate business start-up fees for returning veterans, and, as part of an initiative being pushed by first lady Sheena Greitens, he supports allowing foster teens to sign up for their own bank accounts.
GOP leaders and Greitens also are promoting tax cuts.
Under one proposal, Sen. Bill Eigel, R-Weldon Spring, would eliminate the state’s bottom four tax brackets and lower the top tax rate to 4.8 percent from 6 percent. It would also gradually phase out the state’s income tax.
But in order to keep his plan from blowing a hole in state revenues, Eigel also would decouple Missouri from the federal standard deduction — a move opposed by Richardson and House Budget Committee Chairman Scott Fitzpatrick, R-Shell Knob.
Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard, R-Joplin, also expressed reservations about changing the tax system, saying he was concerned about reducing revenue too much.
“We’re already cutting higher education to the bone,” Richard said.
Lawmakers also will be asked to place a referendum on the November 2018 ballot seeking voter approval of an increase in the state’s motor fuel tax. A task force recommended on Tuesday a 10-cent increase in the current 17-cent-per-gallon rate, which ranks as the fourth-lowest in the nation.
A bid to ban lawmakers from receiving freebies from lobbyists could be back on the agenda in 2018, but the issue has languished in the Senate in recent years.
“I’m hopeful we’ll see the Senate take up and pass that bill,” Richardson said.
Democrats in the House have their own package of ethics reforms, including legislation that would bar government officials or employees from using data-purging applications while conducting public business. The proposal comes in response to the use of a special mobile phone app by Greitens and his staff that destroys text messages after they are read.
Other proposals being pushed by Democrats include a two-year cooling-off period before lawmakers can become lobbyists and legislation that would require secretive, “dark money” organizations such as Greitens’ A New Missouri to report their expenditures.
House Minority Leader Gail McCann Beatty, D-Kansas City, said she was hoping for a quick action on the initiatives.
“I’d hope that we would have the opportunity — that the speaker will hear all of the ethics bills, and we move all of them at that lightning speed that he’s moving the lobbyist gift ban,” she said.
Democrats also are girding for a fight over Republican-led attempts to overhaul state labor laws. More than a dozen proposals have been introduced to change the state’s prevailing wage laws, which mandate higher wages on public construction projects.
But McCann Beatty suggested their opposition might fall on deaf ears. She has met the governor only twice since the political newcomer was sworn in a year ago.
“I think you’ve probably noticed from a few of my press releases, we don’t really have a whole lot to talk about,” she said. “I’m willing to try. I’m willing to see if there can be some common ground. But, quite frankly, I have some serious concerns with some of his policies.”
Post-Dispatch reporters Jack Suntrup and Sky Chadde contributed to this report.