Missouri Legislature convenes amid election-year pressures

01/08/2014 7:15 AM

01/08/2014 7:16 AM

State legislators return to the Capitol today to grapple with far-reaching issues such as how to fix troubled schools and whether to expand the state’s Medicaid program.

But given that it’s an election year, most politically sensitive matters may not come up for votes until after March 25. That’s when filing for office closes and incumbents will learn whether they face opponents. All Missouri House seats and half the Senate seats are up for election in November.

The tone of the legislative session will be set at noon, when both chambers convene to hear opening speeches from their leaders, House Speaker Tim Jones, R-Eureka, and Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey, R-St. Charles.

Jones signaled Tuesday that passing legislation to lessen the power of labor unions would be among his top priorities. The speaker said it would be easier to attract industry, such as Boeing Co.’s massive aircraft plant, if Missouri became the 25th state to allow “total worker freedom and choice.”

Such a law, dubbed “right to work,” would prohibit employment contracts that make union fees a condition of employment. Unions oppose the proposal, and Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, has pledged to veto it. To bypass Nixon, legislators may put the proposal on the statewide ballot.

Senators are likely to spend a lot of time on school transfers, according to Majority Leader Ron Richard, who controls which bills are debated in that chamber. The issue has spurred more than a dozen bills, noted Richard, R-Joplin.

The transfer law, which was upheld by the Missouri Supreme Court last year, lets students in unaccredited districts transfer to better schools in nearby districts, at their home districts’ expense. About 2,200 students have left the Normandy and Riverview Gardens districts. Kansas City schools, which failed last fall to gain accreditation, could be affected next.

“With the transfers affecting both sides of the state, I think there will be some overhauls for sure,” said Rep. Noel Torpey, R-Independence.

Nixon, meanwhile, is pressing to extend Medicaid eligibility to adults making up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level, or roughly $32,500 for a family of four. Rep. Chris Kelly, D-Columbia, was preparing Tuesday to file that bill, which he called “way bigger than Boeing in terms of state economic development.”

Republicans have opposed expanding Medicaid, calling the move financially unsustainable for both the federal and state governments.

“There’s no chance” the bill will pass, Richard said. “The problem is, every time the state gets to the point where it might do something, the feds do something stupid,” such as the problem-plagued launch of the HealthCare.gov website.

Nixon and the Legislature also are at odds on how to build the state budget. The governor and the appropriations chairmen can’t agree on how much revenue the state is likely to take in during the fiscal year that begins July 1.

Legislators will base their budget on 4.2 percent growth. Nixon has not released his figure but wants to use a higher estimate. He will deliver his “State of the State” speech and budget proposals on Jan. 21.

Kelly, a former budget chairman, said both sides should have given ground and split the difference. The dispute, Kelly said, “communicates an inability of the people at the top to govern.”

Republicans control both the House and Senate, but because of resignations, they fall one short in the House of the two-thirds majority needed to override a gubernatorial veto. The GOP dominates the House 108-52, with three vacancies. The Senate is made up of 24 Republicans and nine Democrats; there is one vacancy.

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