JEFFERSON CITY • When the state Legislature convenes on Wednesday, expect refocused debate on old issues and new sparring between lawmakers and Gov. Eric Greitens, a Republican, over his attempts to reshape state bureaucracy.
Lawmakers in the overwhelmingly GOP-controlled Legislature are eyeing proposals to weaken union-backed labor laws, alter the state’s legal climate, cut income taxes and expand access to charter schools. Also in the mix will be another push to largely ban lobbyist gifts and an effort to address opioid addiction.
While it is impossible to know what will gain traction and what will fizzle during the 4½-month session, GOP leaders interviewed did not mention divisive social issues such as anti-abortion legislation among priorities this year.
Meanwhile, a bipartisan coalition of senators has signaled a rocky confirmation process for several of Greitens’ recent appointees, who have taken momentous votes without first earning Senate confirmation.
“We’ll either vote them down or block them from having the opportunity to serve,” Sen. Gary Romine, R-Farmington and chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said of five Greitens appointees who voted to oust Education Commissioner Margie Vandeven in December.
Greitens could also face backlash after he and his allies moved to end state low-income housing tax credits. The December vote by the Missouri Housing Development Commission bypassed the Legislature, which had failed for years to reform the program.
“You could’ve come to the table as an honest broker, instead of trying to be heavy-handed and kill the program,” said Sen. Jacob Hummel, D-St. Louis. “That’s kind of like shooting the hostage before you’ve had the negotiation.”
As always, the prospect of the slow-moving Senate’s killing priorities sent over by the fast-moving House hangs heavy. The Senate’s most notorious marksman, Sen. Rob Schaaf, R-St. Joseph, said he was planning another year of numerous filibusters.
“Oh, my gosh,” Schaaf said when asked what he’d stall. “So many things.”
Schaaf said he would probably filibuster any attempts to bond money, changes to the state’s consumer-protections laws, or a change to how power providers such as Ameren set their rates.
Tax and labor laws
Aside from that friction, lawmakers will tackle a host of other topics.
One proposal to slash the state’s income tax has received significant attention during the legislative off-season. The plan by 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. It would also gradually phase out the state’s income tax.
Eigel has said most of the loss in revenue would be made up by other revenue generators or savings, including: capping low-income housing tax credits, decoupling Missouri from the federal standard deduction, and repealing a loophole that allows retailers to keep 2 percent of sales tax generated. The bill would also raise the state’s gasoline tax by 6 cents.
“There’s also going to be a push to reform our tax code, and I think part of that can be reforming our tax credit program,” said Sen. Bob Onder, R-Lake Saint Louis and assistant majority leader.
After Greitens signed last year a right-to-work law that bans union dues as a condition of employment, lawmakers are pushing more rewrites of the state’s labor laws.
A change of the state’s prevailing wage law would mean that contractors would no longer have to pay a set wage when bidding on public projects such as schools, roads and jails. Another proposal would require annual permission from workers before unions deduct dues from paychecks.
“Right-to-work was really the first round of labor reform,” said House Speaker-elect Elijah Haahr, R-Springfield, who will assume the top job in the House after this session.
Labor unions struck back against the signing of right-to-work, gathering enough signatures to put the new law to a public vote in November. But some Republicans are debating moving the election to August, when turnout is lower.
“My theory is the sooner the better,” said Rep. Holly Rehder, R-Sikeston, who sponsored the right-to-work legislation. “I’ve not heard that coming out of House and Senate leadership, so it’s still a discussion to be had.”
A bipartisan group of lawmakers want to address opioid addiction. Plans include requiring enhanced training for prescribers, requiring insurance coverage of medication-assisted treatment, and a proposal to start a state needle exchange.
Rehder, who has sponsored past attempts to create a prescription drug monitoring program, said there would be less momentum behind her plan this year because 80 percent of Missourians were now covered by a “robust” county-by-county tracking program.
“We need to look at what are some of these other policies that could be helpful with this epidemic,” she said.
Republicans could again push an expansion of charter schools. Currently, the independent public schools are situated only in St. Louis and Kansas City. Last year, a proposal to expand charters to Springfield and Columbia passed the House narrowly before dying in the Senate.
It was unclear whether reversing Medicaid cuts to as many as 8,300 low-income and disabled Missourians would be put on the fast track; recent state figures show few people so far have lost care.
“The reductions, or the impact of that, appears to be significantly less than what we thought,” Haahr said.
Parker Briden, Greitens’ spokesman, said the governor would lobby to allow businesses to have a veterans’ hiring preference, eliminate business start-up fees for returning veterans, and allow foster teens to sign up for their own bank accounts. Briden also said the governor would soon present a “tax reform” package.
Greitens also announced recently his support of a proposal that would lower the bar for firefighters who seek workers’ comp after being diagnosed with cancer. A similar proposal did not survive last year’s session.
Onder was hesitant in a recent interview to back the bill.
“I’m not sure that proposal is as well thought out as I’d like it to be,” he said.
As with all bills, backers will have 4½ months to sway enough of their colleagues.