Missouri General Assembly wraps up ‘historic’ session

Republicans entered the 2013 legislative session with historically large majorities and a long to-do list.

GOP leaders adjourned the session Friday night, declaring it one of the most productive and successful in recent memory.

Yet just hours earlier they sat helplessly as their fellow Republicans killed two of their top priorities — a bill reining in spending on business tax credits and another hiking the sales tax to fund transportation projects like rebuilding Interstate 70.

Meantime, Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon is widely expected to veto several of the bills that survived, most notably a $700 million tax cut.

The Republican majority may be super-sized, but it’s not always united, putting its ability to trump the governor’s sure-to-come vetoes in doubt.

Still, House Speaker Tim Jones struck a confident tone about how history will ultimately judge the 2013 session.

“It was a session of historic accomplishments and substantive reforms,” said Jones, a Eureka Republican.

For their part, Democrats agreed. Sort of.

“One party had a super majority and was still unable to accomplish anything meaningful,” said Rep. Jeremy LaFaver, a Kansas City Democrat. “That is historic. An historic failure.”

Atop the Democrats’ list of grievances is the Republican refusal to accept $900 million in additional federal funds to expand Medicaid eligibility to nearly 300,000 uninsured Missourians. The idea barely got traction despite the full-throated support of the governor and a broad coalition that included organized labor, the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and hospitals around the state.

But that wasn’t the minority party’s only complaint.

“If you fear drones, the United Nations and working families with rights, then it was a great year,” said House Minority Leader Jacob Hummel, a St. Louis Democrat. “If you think creating jobs, improving public education and maintaining a stable and functioning state government are important, then not so much.”

Fractured majority

No issue was more vexing for Republican leaders than education.

On two occasions, House leaders tried to pass sweeping education reform to alter teacher tenure and mandate strict new annual evaluations for administrators and teachers. The measure was soundly defeated in April, with a majority of Republicans rebuking the speaker.

A second attempt at passing a scaled-down version of the bill nearly fizzled before it ever got off the ground. Jones ended up kicking four Republicans off of committees over their objection to the bill before he could finally bring it up again before the full House for a vote.

It failed again.

Jones conceded defeat. In doing so, he opened the door for legislation that would allow a quicker state takeover of the Kansas City Public Schools. That bill now awaits the governor’s signature. House leaders had hoped to use the Kansas City bill as leverage to force the Senate to pass the teacher tenure and evaluations bill.

In the Senate, leaders were forced to abandon tax credit reform and the transportation sales tax when their fellow Republicans threatened to filibuster until the 6 p.m. constitutional deadline for adjournment Friday.

The failures led to much final-day frustration among lawmakers.

“It’s what people hate about this building,” said Sen. Mike Kehoe, a Jefferson City Republican. “It’s why people ask me how I can do this. And this is the week I begin to wonder that myself.”

Making progress

Despite the failure of several high-profile issues, Republicans said they have plenty to be proud of. They cut Missouri income taxes for the first time in nearly a century, and for the first time sent the governor legislation making it more difficult for public-employee unions to collect dues from members.

But both House and Senate leaders agreed that the session’s biggest accomplishment was finally fixing the state’s Second Injury Fund, a nearly bankrupt fund that provides benefits to disabled workers. Several attempts at addressing the fund’s problems had fizzled out over the years, forcing the state to deny payments to injured workers. The governor hinted that he intended to sign the legislation.

Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey, a St. Charles Republican, said many of those issues have been debated for years but have never made it out of both the House and Senate. People shouldn’t let the legislature’s failures overshadow its accomplishments, he said.

“Like a restaurant, if you have a great experience you tell two people. If you have a bad experience you tell 10,” he said. “People may dwell on the items that weren’t accomplished, but we were able to make progress.”

Dempsey also pointed out that the budget included a $66 million funding increase for K-12 education and a $25 million hike for public colleges and universities.

Health care

The debate over whether Missouri should expand its health care program for the poor — a key provision in the the federal Affordable Care Act — was one of the most dominant topics of the 2013 session.

Democrats argued that expansion just made sense. Not only would it ensure nearly 300,000 uninsured Missourians would have access to health care coverage, it would also infuse billions of federal dollars into the state’s economy. That extra money was enough to win over the support of the business community, which cited a University of Missouri study that estimated that expanding Medicaid would create 24,000 jobs in the state in 2014 alone.

Republicans balked at the idea, saying there was no guarantee the federal government would uphold its end of the funding bargain. A House bill that would have partially expanded Medicaid while making changes to the system aimed at including more free-market provisions cleared a committee but never truly got any traction.

Dempsey said GOP lawmakers can go back to their districts knowing that they tackled a lot of issues over the session’s five months. Many of the things that didn’t get done can be attributed to an overflowing agenda, he said.

“I think we set the bar high,” Dempsey said. “We had an ambitious agenda.”