After a year dominated by scandal and the collapse of Eric Greitens’ tenure as governor, Missouri lawmakers are hoping for a calmer 2019 when the Missouri General Assembly begins a new session Wednesday.
That doesn’t mean they expect things to be tranquil.
And among the most potentially divisive issues atop the GOP agenda: Repeal the sweeping “Clean Missouri” constitutional amendment overwhelmingly approved by voters just two months ago. It overhauls the legislative redistricting process, opens lawmakers’ records to the public, lowers campaign contribution limits and eliminates nearly all lobbyist gifts.
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Last year, Republican legislative leaders and Gov. Mike Parson openly opposed the new redistricting provisions, which place the process in the hands of a non-partisan state demographer. They not only want to repeal those changes but may look for ways to make it harder for voters to amend the state’s constitution.
Parson told The Star in December he wants to focus on infrastructure improvements and workforce development, though he has yet to unveil specific proposals.
But one thing the first year GOP state executive won’t support is a tax increase. Parson suffered his own loss at the ballot box in November when voters rejected a gas tax hike he championed for funding much-needed repairs to Missouri’s roads and bridges.
Parson said voters have spoken on a tax hike for infrastructure and that the legislature shouldn’t bother trying to place another on the ballot.
“I would be a little reluctant to see anybody put a tax back on the ballot for people to vote on after they just voted,” Parson said. “I’m not sure that’s the right thing to do.”
A guide to the major issues:
Redistricting reforms won a spot on the ballot through an initiative petition process that Republican leaders contend makes it too easy for voters to amend the constitution.
Amendments to the state constitution currently need only a simple majority of votes for passage. Republicans say it should be harder.
“I don’t mind if the people want to change state law, that’s exactly what they should do,” said House Speaker Elijah Haahr, R-Springfield. “But when we amend the constitution, whether it’s the legislature or the people, we should have a higher bar.”
He introduced a bill in 2015 that would establish a 60 percent threshold.
“Our constitution has become too large and unwieldy, when it should be very limited. And when we amended it, it should be the bulk of Missourians agreeing to amend it,” Haahr said. “If we are going to amend the constitution, a super majority of Missourians should be required to do it.”
Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft said on Twitter in late December that his office has a “number of priorities for the legislative session, but none more important than initiative petition reform.”
The redistricting changes, listed on the November ballot as Amendment One, passed with 62 percent of the vote.
A potential obstacle to tightening the process is one of the party’s biggest benefactors, GOP megadonor Rex Sinquefield.
Sinquefield has donated tens of millions to various candidates and causes in Missouri over the last decade, and regularly used the initiative petition process to advance his priorities of tax cuts and education reform.
People deserve access to their own democracy, said Travis Brown, Sinquefield’s spokesman and a close adviser.
“The real purpose of any changes is to restrict access to their own laws and their own constitution,” Brown said. “Fundamentally everyone has to ask is it appropriate to have access or not? Not what level of access.”
While Republicans seek to roll back the redistricting changes enacted last year, its unclear whether they will enact a new mechanism or revert to the previous method.
“There’s going to be a lot of discussions about that,” Haahr said.
Under the old system every 10 years, following the census, Missouri’s 197 legislative districts were drawn by commissions appointed by party committees and the governor.
Republicans and Democrats got an equal number of seats on the commission, which had to hold at least three public hearings on any proposed legislative maps.
For the maps to be approved, 70 percent of commissioners had to vote in favor. If not, the state Supreme Court appointed six state appellate judges to draw new ones
The changes voters passed in November are intended to remove some of the politics from the process.
Under the new provisions, the state auditor nominates at least three people for the position of non-partisan state demographer. The names are submitted to legislative leaders in the state Senate.
If they agree on a selection, the process ends there. If not, each party’s Senate leader would remove one-third of the auditor’s nominees, and the auditor would then select the demographer from the remainder through a lottery.
The state demographer crafts the legislative maps, which would then be reviewed by a citizen commission that can only make changes if 70 percent approve.
Like current law, legislative districts would have to be contiguous and compact, and protections to ensure minority representation would remain.
But a competitiveness requirement was added, a big change from the old method. The goal is a more even mix of voters in redrawn districts so that one party won’t have an overwhelming advantage over the other.
While Republicans have been most vocal in their disdain for the new redistricting system, some African American lawmakers continue to express concern that the changes could negatively impact minority representation in the legislature.
But Democratic state Rep. DaRon McGee, an African American from Kansas City who will be assistant minority floor leader for the upcoming session, said most of the House Democrats “support the will of the people,”
“At this point, I don’t think that my members are going to be itching to roll back a vote of the public,” McGee said.
Incoming state Sen. Eric Burlison, R-Battlefield, pre-filed a bill last month that would bar unions from requiring workers to pay union fees as a condition of employment. Workers can already opt out of full union membership and pay only for the cost of collective bargaining with an employer. But under right-to-work, they can receive union representation at no cost.
After years of failed attempts, Republicans rejoiced in February 2017 when former Gov. Eric Greitens signed legislation making Missouri the country’s 28th right-to-work state.
But the celebration was short-lived once labor collected enough signatures to successfully challenge the measure on the August ballot. More than 67 percent of voters sided against right-to-work.
While Burlison hopes to reignite the GOP’s pursuit of a long cherished goal, Haahr said that’s unlikely.
“There’s no appetite in the House to revisit the right to work debate,” Haahr said. “The people have spoken.
The leading Democrat in the Missouri House is sounding the alarm on a state tax issue that will likely impact Missourians.
The Columbia Daily Tribune reported last month that errors in Missouri’s tax witholding tables mean there may not have been enough money witheld from thousands of paychecks. The mistake means possible refunds could decrease, the paper reported, or taxpayers will end up owing the state money.
That led House Minority Leader Crystal Quade, D-Springfield, to introduce legislation extending the tax payment deadline for some Missourians.
Under the bill, people who file their returns by the legal deadline and owe less than $200 have until June 15 to pay, according to a statement from Quade’s office.
“The goal here is to alleviate an unfair burden on Missouri citizens,” Quade said. “It is unacceptable that the state’s mistake should leave people with a major surprise tax bill in their annual budgeting.”
Prescription Drug Monitoring
Missouri is the only state without a prescription drug monitoring program, and the fight over changing that is likely to return to the capitol.
Outgoing Sen. Rob Schaaf, R-St. Joseph, was a major critic of the policy and helped block its possible passage. He said last year he thought the program had the “unintended consequence” of hurting people who need a legitimate opioid prescription.
Now that Schaaf has termed out, his replacement, Sen.-elect Tony Luetkemeyer, R-Parkville, is sponsoring the Narcotics Control Act which would create a monitoring system for certain controlled substances. A House version was filed by the idea’s longtime champion, Republican Rep. Holly Rehder of Sikeston.
“I think it’s the role of government, fundamentally, to protect the public safety of its citizens,” Luetkemeyer said.
Despite GOP support, the policy isn’t without its critics. The idea’s “got a long way to go,” said Sen. Bill Eigel, R-Weldon Spring.
“The idea that it’s close to a resolution given the absence of Sen. Schaaf is not correct,” Eigel said. “There’s a long conversation that has to take place before you see something make its way out of the Senate.”
Eigel said he was “certainly surprised to see Sen.-elect Luetkemeyer file the bill.”
“We’re a long way from resolution on this issue,” Eigel said. “We’re a long way from where everyone is comfortable creating massive government databases that in many states have been breached to the detriment to the citizens.”
The legislation “seems like it has a really good chance this year,” Luetkemeyer said.
“I’m sensitive to the privacy concerns that other senators may have surrounding this,” he said. “And that’s one of the reasons why the legislation goes to great lengths to take precautionary measures to protect privacy of citizens.”