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They're back: Missouri Legislature returns with residency, redistricting on agenda

They're back: Missouri Legislature returns with residency, redistricting on agenda

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Missouri lawmakers convene; pledge good schools and jobs

Missouri House Speaker Elijah Haahr speaks to reporters Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2018, during a press conference in the House Lounge of the state Capitol in Jefferson City, Mo. Haahr was elected by colleagues to the top leadership position earlier Wednesday, which was the first day of the 2019 legislative session. (AP Photo/David A. Lieb)

JEFFERSON CITY — Leaders of the Republican-controlled House and Senate have previewed a 2020 legislative session that includes plans to restrain citizen-led petitions and an effort to remove residency requirements for St. Louis city police officers.

Less than a year from the November general election, Republicans may attempt to avoid high-profile fights over abortion and the expansion of gun rights. A major influx of cash for road improvements is also unlikely after lawmakers and Gov. Mike Parson negotiated $350 million in new infrastructure spending last year.

Still, as always, expect spirited debate over numerous issues as lawmakers return to Jefferson City on Wednesday for their 4½-month legislative session.

House Speaker Elijah Haahr, R-Springfield, and Senate President Pro Tem Dave Schatz, R-Sullivan, both said in interviews that new restrictions on gun ownership would not likely gain traction.

“I think it is unlikely our caucus would be in support of measures that would in any way impede our constitutional right to bear arms,” Haahr said.

Schatz said the Legislature will try to find solutions for curbing violence that plagued the state’s urban areas in 2019.

“Public safety is going to be a topic of discussion,” Schatz said.

Among the proposals he’ll be pushing is a plan to remove the requirement that St. Louis police officers live in the city. Supporters of such a plan believe the move could create a larger pool of potential cops.

“It could help put more officers on the street,” Schatz said.

Haahr said he’d like to see measures that encourage witnesses to step forward to identify suspects in criminal cases.

The focus on gun violence comes after another bloody year in St. Louis. There were 194 homicides last year in the city, eight more than in 2018. Police have solved just 61, or 31%, of the 2019 homicide cases.

Growing attention to the toll over the summer led to negotiations between Parson, a Republican, and mayors of the state’s largest cities, eventually leading to Parson’s support of stricter gun possession laws for juveniles, domestic abusers and prior offenders.

But the proposal sputtered amid a lack of outreach to legislative Republicans.

Rep. Gina Mitten, D-Richmond Heights, said the legislative leaders were ignoring a connection between loosened gun laws and high crime rates.

“To behave as if there’s no connection between those aspects of violent crime frankly is very disappointing,” she said.

Ballot initiatives

Schatz said a top priority for Senate Republicans is putting an issue on the 2020 ballot that would repeal certain parts of the 2018 Amendment 1 ballot initiative, also known as Clean Missouri.

Republicans worry they’ll lose some of their legislative power if a “nonpartisan demographer” draws state legislative maps after this year’s census.

“That’s something that will get our attention early in the session,” Schatz said.

House Speaker Pro Tem John Wiemann, R-O’Fallon, said the House also will attempt to change the initiative petition process, which allows groups and individuals to place questions on the ballot that can change state law or amend the constitution.

Changes being considered include increasing the number of signatures needed to put an issue on the ballot. Wiemann also said the threshold for changing the Constitution should be increased from a simple majority of voters to a super-majority.

“It’s too easy right now to change our Constitution,” he said.

Budget concerns

Lawmakers will also soon begin debate on the state's $30 billion annual budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1.

Haahr said he’s concerned that the state budget for next year may be the last “traditional” budget approved by the Legislature for the foreseeable future.

For example, the state owes prison guards $114 million in back pay following a successful lawsuit by correctional officers. The economy also could take a nosedive, affecting tax revenues.

And, voters in November could approve an expansion of Medicaid, which could force the state to pay more to provide health care for the poor and disabled.

“Each one of those represents a pretty significant change to general revenue. It would certainly change the way we handle the budget at that point,” Haahr.

After the Legislature approved a package of bills aimed at improving bridges and highways last year, Haahr said it is unlikely the Legislature will act on any further infrastructure plans this year.

And, he said there is no way Republicans in the House will sign off on an increase in the gas tax.

Haahr said there could be increased revenues flowing into the state if lawmakers approve a plan to start collecting online sales taxes or endorse an expansion of gambling.

Punitive damages

Republicans also plan to make their annual push for changes to the state’s legal system.

One proposal floated by Sen. Bill White, R-Joplin, would change when plaintiffs can seek punitive damages in lawsuit.

Currently, punitive damages can be requested when a lawsuit is filed. That puts pressure on defendants to quickly seek a settlement, White said last year.

White’s proposal would only allow damages to be requested once a judge decides that specific guidelines have been met.

Mitten, the top-ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, said to expect debate over “more laws aimed at removing consumer protections” from the GOP Legislature.

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