Missouri Republicans returned to the state Capitol on Wednesday with historic legislative majorities and vast new constitutional budget powers — and a determination to flex that muscle.
They made it clear they intend to waste little time testing their new clout against Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon. The vowed to pass a budget to their liking soon enough to allow time for overriding any vetoes by the governor.
They were greeted by demonstrators chanting and unfurling banners in the Missouri Senate, briefly shutting the chamber down in protest of the fatal police shooting last August of an unarmed 18-year-old in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson.
Police cleared the visitors’ galleries, and legislative business was able to begin again after a 30-minute delay. No one was arrested, and protesters vowed to return to the statehouse regularly throughout the 2015 session.
The protests served as a reminder to the Republicans in charge that they won’t be able to script everything this year. But it did little to curb the enthusiasm of GOP leaders as they laid out their agenda.
First on their list is the state’s budget.
Voters amended the constitution last year to allow lawmakers to overturn any of the governor’s budget cuts with a two-thirds vote. With 117 Republicans in the House and 25 in the Senate, they have more than enough votes to do so.
House Republicans plan to speed up the budget process this year in hopes that they will have time near the end of the session to overturn any of the governor’s budget decisions. In the meantime, House Speaker John Diehl said lawmakers may look to the current budget for areas where they believe Nixon erred in withholding funds.
“There may be an early test of the powers granted to us” by voters, said Diehl, a St. Louis County Republican.
Beyond the budget, Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey, a St. Charles Republican, said his first order of business will be to push through bills that died at the hands of the governor last year.
Among them is an education bill Nixon vetoed because it allowed taxpayer dollars to be used for students in unaccredited districts to attend nonreligious private schools. Both Dempsey and Nixon said Wednesday that they have held meetings about the education bill in recent months and believe a compromise can be struck.
“The urgency for reform and educational opportunity has never been greater,” Dempsey said.
Senate Majority Leader Ron Richard, a Joplin Republican, said his top priority is ethics reform. Missouri is the only state with no limits on campaign contributions, no caps on lobbyist gifts to lawmakers and no restrictions on a legislator becoming a lobbyist after leaving office.
Richard said he hopes to rein in gifts and improve transparency in the campaign finance system. But contributions limits, he said, are off the table.
In the House, Diehl steered clear of specifics and instead focused on broad themes like “individual freedom” and reining in “the ever-expanding government bureaucracy.”
But he did weigh in on the issues that protesters said were exposed by the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown and the subsequent unrest on the streets of Ferguson. Diehl said he believes there are areas where lawmakers could focus their attention. But ultimately, “we’re not going to have a Ferguson agenda.”
“To the extent that there’s an interest in fixing some of the fundamental building blocks that have led to the deterioration of society,” he said, “we’ll be open.”
Diehl added that the Republican House caucus “is a strong supporter of law enforcement.”
Democrats, who hold only nine seats in the Senate and 47 in the House, pointed out that the communities most directly affected by the unrest in Ferguson are represented by their members. They hope to focus on municipal court reform, improved police training and how allegations of excessive force by police are investigated.
“These problems developed over many decades and won’t be solved in the next five months, but they won’t be solved at all if we don’t make the effort,” said Assistant House Minority Leader Gail McCann Beatty, a Kansas City Democrat. “That effort begins today.”
Dempsey said he agreed that municipal court reform should be a top priority, arguing that cities all over the state “abuse traffic enforcement and rely on the fines generated, not to discourage bad driving behavior, but rather to support their own government bureaucracy.”
A day that began with protests over perceived injustices in the urban core ended with a black tie gala in the Capitol rotunda, with lawmakers kicking off the new session with drinks and dancing.
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