Halfway through the 2015 legislative session, the Republican-dominated General Assembly has blazed a conservative path.
Bills knocking thousands of people off the state’s welfare rolls and reducing how long someone can receive unemployment benefits are nearly to the governor’s desk.
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Fissures between Republicans, Democratic stonewalling and Gov. Jay Nixon’s veto pen could all still spell doom for some of the Republicans’ policy priorities. But with only two months left before the legislature adjourns for the year, its leaders are confident.
“Virtually everything I talked about is going to make it across the finish line in very short order,” said House Speaker John Diehl, a St. Louis County Republican.
Just before departing for the legislative spring break Thursday, Republican leaders gathered to celebrate legislation that would reduce how long families can receive benefits through a federal program known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.
It has passed the House and the Senate. Differences between the two versions will still have to be worked out before it can head to the governor.
Missouri families can currently receive benefits for as long as five years in an adult lifetime, although 57 percent have been on TANF less than two years.
The Senate bill reduces the lifetime cap to four years, a move that would cause 7,000 people to lose benefits. The House reduces it to two and a half years, increasing the number of people whose benefits would expire to more than 20,000.
That bill also implements stricter work requirements for TANF and food stamps and calls for families to meet with a state social worker in person when they sign up for benefits. Savings from the changes would be redirected to help pay for other safety net programs, such as child care assistance.
Proponents of the bill say the goal is to encourage people to find jobs instead of relying on government assistance.
“We didn’t cut welfare. We restructured the program and put investments into things that are going to get people back to work” such as transportation, job training and child care, said Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey, a St. Charles Republican.
In February, roughly 73,000 people were on TANF, two-thirds of whom were children. According to the Department of Social Services, the typical case is made up of one parent and two children.
The Missouri income guidelines for benefit recipients haven’t been updated since 1993. A family of three, for example, can earn no more than $846 a month in salary to receive $292 a month in TANF benefits.
The average amount of monthly benefits is about $230 per family.
“I’m not sure why we’re celebrating the fact that families are going to be immediately thrown off of assistance,” said Sen. Jill Schupp, a St. Louis Democrat. “There’s nothing to celebrate here.”
While Republicans boasted about their midsession accomplishments, the vastly outnumbered legislative Democrats complained about the lack of debate on bills expanding Medicaid eligibility or responding to racial turmoil in Ferguson.
Instead, Republicans have focused on policy that would hurt the “most vulnerable members of our society,” said House Minority Leader Jake Hummel, a St. Louis Democrat.
“Perhaps the GOP should change their initials to the COP, the ‘cruel old party,’” Hummel said.
As lawmakers began their final day before legislative spring break, hundreds of protesters gathered in the Capitol to demand a debate on Medicaid expansion — a key tenant of the federal health care law. Their presence managed to delay the start of business in the Senate by an hour.
Missouri’s current Medicaid eligibility for adults is the lowest allowed under federal law, about $4,600 a year for a family of four. If Missouri were to raise eligibility to the threshold set in the Affordable Care Act — commonly known as Obamacare — as many as 300,000 new people would qualify for coverage.
Republican leaders have repeatedly said the issue is a nonstarter in the legislature this year.
Shortly after protesters left the Capitol, the Senate passed a bill subsidizing insurance for dairy farmers. Sen. Ryan Silvey, a Kansas City Republican who has championed Medicaid expansion, questioned why lawmakers were OK supporting a federal system funding insurance “for cows” but not for taxpayers.
“I can’t help myself but to point it out,” he said, referring to the federal dairy program as “Obamacows.”
On Ferguson, the Senate approved legislation earlier in the session that would limit the amount of a municipality’s revenue that can be generated from traffic fines.
Diehl said the municipal court bill would be among the first debated in the House after spring break.
The Senate is also set to debate a bill pertaining to body cameras on police officers.
Additionally, Republicans pointed to a bill reworking the law allowing students in unaccredited school districts to transfer to another district as another needed response to Ferguson. Michael Brown, the black 18-year-old whose shooting death at the hands of a white police officer sparked the unrest in Ferguson, graduated from an unaccredited high school.
Unlike last year, the transfer bill appears to have the support of the governor.
“We’re trying to make sure every child has access to a quality education,” Diehl said.
The fate of legislation barring unions from charging any fees to non-union workers is still in question.
The measure — known as a “right to work” bill — won approval of the Missouri House last month for the first time ever. But it didn’t garner enough votes to overcome an inevitable veto by Nixon.
It has since passed a Senate committee, and Dempsey said he’ll put it on the chamber’s calendar late in the session for possible debate. Democrats are almost certain to filibuster. Whether Republicans have the votes to pass it remains in question.
A bill making it more difficult for public employee unions to collect fees and dues was expected to have an easier time, but it fell to defeat in a Senate committee, potentially killing it for the year.
Diehl said he expects the House to take up a Senate-backed ethics reform bill after spring break. The legislation includes several provisions, including a two-year cooling-off period before lawmakers become lobbyists after leaving office.
The cooling-off period wouldn’t apply to current lawmakers, however.
Missouri is the only state in the nation without either campaign contribution caps or limits on lobbyists’ gifts to elected officials. The Senate bill wouldn’t change that.