Government & Politics

Greitens, GOP lawmakers have big plans for 2018 — if they can overcome dysfunction

On-and-off dysfunction mired the 2017 legislative session in gridlock. Much of the tension was between Gov. Eric Greitens and a bipartisan group of senators with whom he regularly quarreled.
On-and-off dysfunction mired the 2017 legislative session in gridlock. Much of the tension was between Gov. Eric Greitens and a bipartisan group of senators with whom he regularly quarreled. AP

Republican legislative leaders and Gov. Eric Greitens are promising a sweeping agenda for the 2018 session that begins Wednesday.

Their biggest obstacle: A return of the on-and-off dysfunction that mired the 2017 legislative session in gridlock.

Much of the 2017 tension was between Greitens and a bipartisan group of senators with whom he regularly quarreled.

And those hard feelings don’t seem to have subsided in the months since lawmakers adjourned for the year. In fact, they may have calcified.

The Missouri General Assembly will begin its work again at noon Wednesday. Here are five key issues to follow:

Taxes

Republicans enter the 2018 legislative session determined to cut the state’s income taxes.

Just four years after lawmakers successfully enacted a $600 million state tax cut, a plethora of bills have been filed that would further reduce tax rates. The one getting the most attention would cut the top income tax rate, eliminate the bottom four brackets, and over time phase out the income tax altogether.

“We have a great opportunity this year,” said Senate Majority Floor Leader Mike Kehoe, a Jefferson City Republican. “By pushing for real reforms to Missouri’s tax code, we can make a lasting difference for businesses and families.”

To offset the cost of tax cuts, many Republicans are hoping to rein in spending on tax credits.

The Missouri Housing Development Commission, after being stacked with Greitens appointees, recently voted to not use any state money to match $140 million in federal low-income housing tax credits.

Greitens called the tax credit a “special interest scheme” and celebrated the commission’s decision.

The vote sets up a showdown in the legislature between critics of the tax credit like Greitens and those who argue that eliminating it could have devastating consequences for low-income seniors, the homeless and people with disabilities.

It could also result in a nasty fight over the governor’s appointments to the commission and other state boards (see below).

Appointments

One topic that could dominate the early weeks (or more) of the 2018 legislative session: Greitens’ appointments to various boards and committees.

Traditionally a rather low-key part of the session, the governor’s appointment power could come under scrutiny in the Missouri Senate after his efforts to stack boards with loyalists resulted in the firing of the state’s top education official and cuts to low-income housing tax credits.

Sen. Gary Romine, a Farmington Republican, has already promised to filibuster the governor’s picks to serve on the State Board of Education.

“I do not believe any of these members deserve to be confirmed,” Romine told the Springfield News-Leader. “I am prepared to filibuster these appointees.”

Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, a St. Louis Democrat, vowed to block at least one of the governor’s nominees to the Missouri House Development Commission.

The governor’s nominees to various other boards, from the Kansas City Police Commission to the Missouri Veterans Commission, could get caught in the crossfire — or become targets themselves.  

Ethics

Missouri law allows elected officials to accept an unlimited amount of gifts from lobbyists, from travel to sporting event tickets to rounds of golf.

Lawmakers have been trying to end that reality for years.

The Missouri House routinely passes a ban on lobbyist gifts to elected officials. The Missouri Senate routinely kills it.

Gift-ban proponents vow to take up the fight once again this year. That includes Missouri House Speaker Todd Richardson, who has long listed a gift ban among his highest priorities and who will be forced out of office in 2019 because of term limits.

In the Senate, a push to force political nonprofits to disclose their donors will almost assuredly be debated. And it’ll be yet another showdown between lawmakers and the governor.

A ban on so-called dark money gained steam last year after Greitens’ political team founded a nonprofit that doesn’t have to abide by voter-imposed contribution limits and doesn’t have to disclose its donors.

Eric Greitens' political career is intertwined with the rise of "dark money" in Missouri. This video was originally published May 24, 2017.

The nonprofit regularly attacked Greitens’ enemies in the legislature, most notably when it publicized Republican state Sen. Rob Schaaf’s cell phone number.

A group of senators essentially took the chamber hostage to force a debate on a dark-money ban, but it died when Republican legislators staged their own filibuster to block it.

Open records

A push to update and strengthen Missouri’s open records laws got new momentum after The Star revealed that Greitens and his senior staff were using an app on their phones that deletes a text message after it’s been read.

The revelation led Attorney General Josh Hawley, a Republican, to launch an investigation into Greitens’ office to ensure he isn’t illegally destroying public records.

It also led to a call to modernize the state’s outdated Sunshine Law and record retention laws.

Hawley said he hopes to work with the Missouri Press Association and other stakeholders to develop proposals to clarify and strengthen his office’s authority to enforce the Sunshine Law, which was “written decades and decades ago and has not been updated to take into account modern technology.”

Transparency advocates hope the legislature will clarify the Sunshine Law to say definitively that all communications regarding public business, whether on privately owned devices or government-owned devices, must be considered public records to be retained and available for public review.

Lawmakers could also say clarify what penalties should apply in the event that government officials fail to retain communications regarding public business.

Health care

Both Republicans and Democrats say they will work to find a solution for budget cuts that could end up costing 8,000 disabled Missourians access to in-home and nursing home care.

Rep. Deb Lavender, a St. Louis County Democrat, hopes to revive an idea vetoed by Greitens that would redirect money that is sitting unused in special state accounts and use it to restore the cuts to in-home care funding.

Sen. Mike Cunningham, a Rogersville Republican, has a plan that would reverse the cuts by reining in spending on a property tax credit for low-income seniors who rent their homes.

Meanwhile, Democratic Reps. Peter Meredith of St. Louis and Crystal Quade of Springfield are pushing to eliminate two tax loopholes they hope will generate enough revenue to reverse cuts to in-home care as well as cuts to a prescription drug benefit program for low-income seniors.

Lawmakers saved $15 million from the state’s $27 billion budget last session by cutting eligibility for the prescription drug program for 60,000 elderly Missourians.

“Missouri,” Lavender said, “has gotten its priorities out of order.”

Listen: Deep Background podcast

Gov. Eric Greitens' first year in office | The Star's Jason Hancock and Dave Helling take a deep dive into Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens' first year in office — a year marked by secrecy and controversy. What's next? The podcast takes a look at that question too.

Listen to past episodes here or subscribe on your favorite podcasting app.

Jason Hancock: 573-634-3565, @J_Hancock

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