Lawmakers return to the Missouri Capitol for the 2017 legislative session on Wednesday with Republicans in complete control.
Having huge legislative majorities isn’t anything new for the GOP. They’ve had enough votes to override any of Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon’s vetoes since 2012. But this year they’ll have an ally in the governor’s mansion, as Republican Eric Greitens takes over for Nixon vowing to sign a litany of bills that have languished for years.
“It’s a lot easier to count to 82 than it is to 109,” said House Speaker Todd Richardson, a Poplar Bluff Republican, referring to how many votes it takes to pass a bill rather than override a veto in the House. “I anticipate we’ll be able to move some of those priorities that we’ve come up short on before.”
But that doesn’t mean the 2017 session will lack in drama. The GOP holds all the cards, but nothing is guaranteed except that the session will end at 6 p.m. on May 12.
How quickly will Missouri become a right-to-work state?
It’s a question of when, not if.
In right-to-work states, such as Kansas, employees in unionized workplaces need not pay unions for the cost of being represented. Republicans have been trying to pass right-to-work legislation for years, but they’ve never had a governor willing to sign it or enough votes to override a veto.
That changed with the election of Greitens, who has made it clear that he’ll sign right-to-work if lawmakers put it on his desk.
Democrats could filibuster, but Republicans have increasingly shown their willingness to turn to a procedural move to quash the Democrats’ efforts.
The maneuver to kill a filibuster, known as “calling the previous question,” was once rarely used — only five times in the Senate from 1970 to 2001, when Republicans captured the majority. But it’s now been used five times since 2014, including three times in 2016.
Senate Minority Leader Gina Walsh, a St. Louis County Democrat and president of the Missouri State Building and Construction Trades Council, recently told The Associated Press that right-to-work is probably a foregone conclusion.
“I’m not willing to lay down on it yet,” she said, “but I’m also a realist.”
Unions seem resigned to right-to-work’s passage, too, with the AFL-CIO filing a proposed initiative petition that would ask voters in 2018 to amend the state constitution and reverse any right-to-work law.
Will the GOP push for more tax cuts?
In 2011, lawmakers approved a bill phasing out the corporate franchise tax. Two years ago, they approved a phased-in $620 million income tax cut. In September, they voted to override Nixon’s vetoes on a series of tax breaks for various types of businesses.
This year, the goal may be to eliminate taxes on corporations altogether.
Austin Chambers, Greitens’ senior adviser, recently told reporters that the governor-elect could support a plan that eliminates business tax credits in order to fund a cut in the overall corporate tax rate.
But one thing could short-circuit the tax-cutting plans: Kansas.
The budget woes in Kansas since its legislature passed massive tax cuts four years ago have not gone unnoticed in the Show-Me State. And now Missouri is facing budget problems of its own in 2017, with Greitens preparing to make cuts on his first day in office that some say could be has high as $150 million.
That’s giving some Republican lawmakers pause, including Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard, a Joplin Republican.
“I don’t want to end up like Kansas, and (I want to) make sure our revenue allows us to meet expectations on what we have to do to meet government obligations,” Richard recently told a Joplin TV station.
Can lawmakers unite on school choice?
Republicans hold a 117-46 majority in the House and 24-9 in the Senate.
But the division that has historically sunk education bills in the past hasn’t been particularly partisan. It’s been more geographical, pitting urban, suburban and rural lawmakers against each other regardless of party.
In 2013 a bill making changes to teacher tenure was defeated on the House floor when 54 Republicans joined with 48 Democrats to kill it. That same year, a watered-down version of the bill was defeated once again on a much tighter vote.
More recently, lawmakers have managed to pass legislation allowing students in failing schools to transfer to non-religious private schools. Nixon vetoed the bill and supporters weren’t able to muster enough votes for an override.
Greitens has signaled he’s more amenable to school-choice advocates’ agenda, with his senior adviser telling reporters recently that he is looking into the idea of education savings accounts, which would allow parents to use state funds to pay tuition to a private or virtual school, buy textbooks, hire tutors or pay for any number of things approved by the state.
But even with an ally in the governor’s mansion, school-choice advocates face major obstacles.
It takes 82 votes to pass a bill out of the House. In 2015, the education bill Nixon vetoed garnered only 84 votes, with 33 Republicans in opposition. Critics of the bill say some who voted in favor did so based on the political calculation that Nixon was going to veto it anyway, so why tussle with GOP leaders.
A governor willing to sign education legislation could mean some of those “yes” votes might flip over to “no.”
Does ethics reform really stand a chance?
Lawmakers entered the 2016 session promising that they would finally end years of gridlock and pass meaningful ethics reform.
By the time the 2016 session ended five months later, they’d made some progress. They passed bills prohibiting lawmakers from serving as paid political consultants while in office, forcing lawmakers to wait six months after their term ends before becoming paid lobbyists and establishing restrictions on use of campaign funds by former legislators.
But opposition in the Senate killed a ban on lobbyist gifts to elected officials, and even proponents of the waiting period legislation said six months was too short. Efforts to cap campaign contributions never got off the ground.
Richardson, the House speaker, has said a lobbyist gift ban will be among the top priorities in 2017. And Greitens not only wants gifts banned, but he wants to lengthen how long lawmakers must wait after leaving office before they can become a lobbyist.
“We’ve talked about this with the legislature,” Chambers, Greitens’ senior adviser, said of ethics reform. “The governor-elect is serious about getting it done.”