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At end of first session, mixed results for Missouri's new governor

At end of first session, mixed results for Missouri's new governor

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JEFFERSON CITY • After eight years of sharing the reins of state government with a Democrat, Missouri Republicans launched the 2017 legislative session in January with one of their own in the governor’s office.

But the combination of having GOP supermajorities in the House and Senate and new Gov. Eric Greitens on the second floor of the Capitol did not guarantee smooth sailing over the four months that lawmakers were in town.

Despite a raucous and ragged ending to the session on Friday, in which Senate leaders employed contentious parliamentary maneuvers to avoid a complete shutdown of the session by Democrats, lawmakers delivered high-profile wins to the governor on issues like a “right-to-work” law and other GOP-backed changes designed to bring jobs to the Show-Me State.

The rookie governor, however, failed to convince his fellow Republicans to take action on a set of ethics initiatives he campaigned upon during his upstart bid for office.

“What’s the grade that I’d give the Legislature? Frankly, sometimes it looked like third grade,” Greitens told reporters in a post-session press conference in his office Friday evening.

The governor, who campaigned last year as an outsider, on Friday appeared ready to continue bashing lawmakers this summer by hinting at calling a special legislative session on an undisclosed topic.

“We’ve won Round 1,” said the former boxer. “We’ll actually be meeting this weekend and next week with the team to again begin the process of looking at all the bills that were passed and to lay out our plans in Round 2.”

With former Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon no longer blocking anti-union legislation, the GOP supermajorities in the House and Senate sent Greitens a series of pro-business initiatives he says will make Missouri a magnet for companies.

Under the right-to-work measure, unions are prohibited from collecting dues as a condition of employment.

Lawmakers also approved a prohibition on project labor agreements, in which the state’s cities and counties could lose state funding if they force nonunion contractors to pay workers union wages for public projects.

Over strong Democratic opposition, Republicans also sent Greitens a proposal that would make it tougher to prove workplace and housing discrimination in court.

The legislation would require people suing for discrimination to prove that a protected class such as race, gender, age or ability was “the motivating factor” for disciplinary action from an employer. Under current law, employees must only prove that their protected class contributed to an employer’s decision to fire, discipline or refuse to hire them.

Supporters said the change is needed to reduce the number of “frivolous lawsuits” that have made it too hard to do business in the state.

Greitens would not say Friday whether he will sign the measure, but he is facing heavy lobbying to veto it from Democrats and opponents such as the NAACP and the ACLU, who say it strips workers of protection and gives Missouri one of the toughest standards for proving discrimination in the country.

He also wouldn’t say whether he would veto a plan to nullify an increase in the St. Louis minimum wage to $10, up from the current statewide standard of $7.70.

While the pro-business agenda was playing out under the dome, lawmakers were able to craft a $27.8 billion spending plan that features the first fully funded school aid formula and a cushion of $100 million in case revenues don’t grow as planned.

The budget plan does close a hole that could have left 8,000 seniors and disabled Missourians on the brink of losing their health care because of a change in the qualification methods used to determine eligibility.

The fix came as the final act in the House on Friday evening after the Senate refused to take up alternative proposals.

The chairman of the House Budget Committee, Rep. Scott Fitzpatrick, R-Shell Knob, voted against it, arguing it would make the budget unbalanced.

“I think this bill is awful. I think it is unconstitutional,” Fitzpatrick said. “I think it would be an abdication of our responsibility to pass a balanced budget.”

Democrats advocated for the change in order to spare seniors from losing benefits.

“We played chicken for a week,” said Rep. Crystal Quade, D-Springfield. “This was not what I was sent here to do.”

The new budget calls for no new taxes, but it also includes no raises for the nation’s lowest paid state workforce. It also cuts core funding to the state’s public universities by 6.5 percent.

Lawmakers did approve changes to state employee pensions, making it easier for prison guards, social workers and others on the state payroll to qualify for a pension.

Greitens also was handed a bill permitting companies like Uber and Lyft to expand their ride-hailing services across the state.

Greitens also was given a proposed law establishing the so-called “Blue Alert System” to aid in the identification, location and apprehension of any individual or individuals suspected of killing or seriously injuring any local, state, or federal law enforcement officer.

But Greitens fell far short of convincing lawmakers to take up his call for cleaning up the ethical atmosphere in the capital city.

He had sought to ban lobbyists from giving goodies to lawmakers, but the measure fizzled. His bid to extend term limits to all statewide officers also failed to advance.

And, his plan to extend the waiting period for lawmakers wanting to become lobbyists to equal the time they are in office received barely a mention from lawmakers.

Among the reasons for the failure was Greitens’ own doing. After running on a platform of cleaning up government, his acceptance of secretive campaign contributions and the formation of a nonprofit that could accept undisclosed donations was met with scorn from some lawmakers.

“Gov. Greitens campaigned to drain the swamp in Jefferson City, but instead chose to swim in the swamp,” said House Minority Leader Gail McCann Beatty, D-Kansas City.

Greitens shrugged off questions about the effect the nonprofit had on his ethics push on Friday, repeating that he doesn’t have a day-to-day role in its operation.

Greitens also did not get his way on establishing a tax credit program benefiting disabled school students, which opponents viewed as a precursor to school vouchers.

Members of the House and Senate also focused on their own pet projects and addressed a long-standing fight with the federal government over the REAL ID program.

In the latter, they approved legislation that will allow Missourians to get identification cards that meet federal standards, allowing them to get on airplanes and onto military bases.

Lawmakers also approved a measure that gives the St. Louis Zoo a way to raise money for its operations and infrastructure projects without charging admission. St. Louis and St. Louis County residents pay property taxes that support the popular institution. But zoo officials have said it doesn’t bring in enough revenue for necessary renovations, maintenance and conservation projects.

The proposal allows St. Louis and St. Louis County voters to approve a sales tax increase of no more than one-eighth of 1 percent for zoo funding.

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