A familiar set of issues awaits lawmakers as they return to the Missouri Capitol on Wednesday for the 2016 legislative session.
Missouri’s legislative ethics laws remain among the weakest in the nation, and as the number of roads and bridges in need of repair continues to rise, the fund used to pay for those repairs continues to shrink.
Regulations on abortion are surely to be tightened, while regulations on guns will be loosened.
Requiring Missourians to provide government-issued photo IDs to before voting has been a Republican priority for years. Same goes for a “right-to-work” law. Both issues are back on the GOP agenda.
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With a 116-43 majority in the House and 24-8 in the Senate, Republicans can do virtually anything they wish as long as they stick together. And with a new legislative session comes new GOP leaders, the result of the speaker of the House resigning in disgrace and the Senate president resigning to become a lobbyist.
That new leadership has renewed expectations that longstanding issues that have vexed the General Assembly for years can finally be put to rest.
But they also will face a host of new concerns.
The University of Missouri will be in the spotlight after a year of controversy on the school’s flagship Columbia campus. And a proposed $1.1 billion football stadium in St. Louis will come under scrutiny from lawmakers who think it should be put up for a vote of the people.
Ride-hailing companies such as Uber again will push to do away with local regulations, and online fantasy sports companies such as Fan Duel and Draft Kings have hired a team of lobbyists to push for the state to legalize their business.
Here’s a closer look at some of the big issues facing the Missouri General Assembly in 2016:
House Speaker John Diehl, a St. Louis County Republican, was forced to resign in May after The Star revealed his relationship with a 19-year-old House intern. A few weeks later, Sen. Paul LeVota, an Independence Democrat, resigned amid sexual harassment allegations from former interns.
The pair of resignations were seen by many as symptomatic of a culture in Jefferson City that was out of control, and they added fuel to longstanding efforts to pass ethics reform.
“As I have been saying for months, ethics reform will be a top priority for the House this session and will be among the first bills passed …,” said Todd Richardson, a Poplar Bluff Republican who replaced Diehl as House speaker.
Missouri is the only state with the trio of no cap on campaign contributions, no limit on lobbyist gifts to elected officials and no waiting period before lawmakers can become lobbyists after leaving office.
Bills have been filed in both chambers addressing these three areas. Another proposal would rein in the longstanding practice of legislative staff getting paid on the side for political consulting by mandating they file financial disclosures. Yet another would ban alcohol and tobacco use in the Capitol.
Missouri’s road fund has been cut nearly in half over the last few years, from $1.3 billion in 2009 to an expected $700 million next fiscal year. Transportation officials say that means Missouri can afford to maintain its roads but doesn’t have the cash to replace or expand where needed.
Lawmakers hoped a sales tax increase could fund road and bridge repair for the next decade, but voters overwhelmingly rejected that idea in 2014. Now, the proposal getting the most attention would raise the gas tax 2 cents, small enough to avoid having to go back on the ballot.
Many Republicans lawmakers and Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon support the measure, but GOP leaders doubt a tax increase of any size stands much of a chance in the legislature, especially in an election year, leaving many wondering about a Plan B.
Republicans say requiring a government-issued photo ID to vote would help prevent fraud. Democrats say there has never been an instance of fraud in Missouri that the photo ID requirement would prevent, and they say such a law would disenfranchise likely Democratic voters.
The debate will play out again in 2016.
“It’s common sense that you would need (a photo ID) to vote, so that we can verify that you are the person you say you are,” said Sen. Will Kraus, a Lee’s Summit Republican who is running for secretary of state.
In Missouri, a voter now must provide some form of ID before casting a ballot, but that’s not limited to items with photos. A utility bill, bank statement or paycheck can suffice.
Complicating the debate is a recent warning by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security that the state’s exemption from federal ID rules will end Sunday. That means Missouri driver’s licenses and ID cards no longer be will acceptable forms of identification to enter federal facilities and might no longer be accepted at airport security.
In 2009, a bipartisan group of legislators passed a bill blocking Missouri from participating in the federal program, known as Real ID. Nixon signed the bill into law.
Sen. Rob Schaaf, a St. Joseph Republican, wrote in a post on his Facebook that the 2009 vote was to ensure that the federal government didn’t put Missouri license source documents in a database and prevent “giving the federal government facial-recognition-quality digital photos of our citizens.”
GOP leaders in both the House and Senate say they are looking into options to address the situation and avoid headaches for Missourians. But some lawmakers, including Schaaf, argue that Missouri should do nothing.
“Now we can either stand as the sovereign state we are and refuse to cooperate, fighting whatever comes, or buckle under to a slowly restricting surveillance,” he said.
‘Right to work’
Debate over “right to work” broke the Missouri Senate in 2015.
After Republicans turned to a rarely used procedural move to force the bill through the chamber, Democrats responded with a filibuster that essentially lasted the entire last week of the session. Only one other bill was passed that week. Everything else on the Senate agenda fell by the wayside
It was all for naught. Nixon vetoed the measure, which would have made it a misdemeanor for anyone to be required to become a union member or pay dues to a labor organization as a condition of employment.
Enough Republicans in the House joined with Democrats to uphold Nixon’s veto and kill the bill.
Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard, a Joplin Republican, told Missourinet.com that the Senate won’t push the issue again in 2016 unless the House can muster up a veto-proof majority of 109 votes. Only 96 representatives supported the measure in September.
Missouri has enacted some of the nation’s strictest abortion laws in recent years, culminating in 2014 when lawmakers tripled the waiting period for a woman seeking an abortion to 72 hours.
This year, the focus of the debate is squarely on Planned Parenthood, whose St. Louis clinic is the only one in Missouri performing abortions. Lawmakers are looking for ways to cut off public funding for the organization and apply new restrictions on doctors who perform abortions and any other entity that does business with Planned Parenthood.
Lawmakers also have worked for years to loosen Missouri’s gun laws, from eliminating mandatory background checks to lowering the age at which someone can carry a concealed weapon.
President Barack Obama’s push to enact some gun control measures through executive action surely will amplify calls for relaxed regulations in Missouri. In 2013, the last time Obama took action on guns, Missouri lawmakers responded by trying to criminalize the enforcement of federal gun laws.
The measure, which legal experts agreed was unconstitutional, fell one vote short in the Senate of becoming law.
Among the bills expected to get attention this year are proposals permitting concealed weapons on Missouri’s public college campuses and creating a tax holiday for gun sales.
Key players in Missouri legislature
House Speaker Todd Richardson
A Poplar Bluff Republican, Richardson won the most powerful job in the legislature after Speaker John Diehl was forced to resign last year. Richardson, 39, has won bipartisan praise for pushing the House to revamp its sexual harassment and intern policies after the Diehl scandal.
House Majority Leader Mike Cierpiot
A Lee’s Summit Republican, Cierpoit, 62, is the highest-ranking lawmaker from the Kansas City area. He could serve as Richardson’s second-in-command in the House for the next three years.
Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard
A Joplin Republican, Richard took over the top spot in the Senate after President Tom Dempsey resigned early to become a lobbyist. Richard, 68, is the first Missouri lawmaker to ever serve as both House speaker and Senate president.
Senate Majority Leader Mike Kehoe
A Jefferson City Republican, Kehoe, 53, will control the Senate calendar. That means he will have considerable influence on what bills come up for debate.
Sen. Ryan Silvey
A Kansas City Republican, Silvey, 39, is chairman of the Commerce, Consumer Protection, Energy and the Environment Committee and vice chairman of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee. He is expected to become chairman next year of the Appropriations Committee, which controls the state budget.
Senate Minority Leader Joe Keaveny
A St. Louis Democrat, Keaveny, 59, will lead the eight-member minority caucus. Democrats effectively shut down the Senate last year after Republicans forced a vote on a “right-to-work” bill, and some of that animosity could carry over into 2016.