Kansas City Star: Missouri lawmakers hopeful for final two months of 2016 Session

 

The fever that gripped the Missouri Senate for two weeks appears to have broken.

But the hard feelings that nearly short circuited the legislative session remain.

The Senate has been consumed by a “religious freedom” amendment to the state’s constitution since March 7, when Democrats kicked off what became a 39-hour filibuster of the bill. Republicans responded with a rarely-used procedural maneuver that cut off debate and forced a vote, which in turn sparked a week of Democratic stall tactics in retaliation.

The impasse had many Capitol veterans worried the legislative session had been derailed, with little hope of getting back on track before May 13 adjournment.

As lawmakers head home for spring break this week – the mid-point of the annual legislative session – both sides seem ready for détente. The state’s $27 billion budget still must be finalized, along with a long list of legislative priorities.

Yet any accord will be a fragile one, in danger of being shattered as controversial topics like guns on campus and voter ID remain on the horizon.

“As long as there are bills on the (senate) calendar that would undermine Missourians’ rights, I’m willing to be part of a group that would slowdown the Senate for as long as possible,” said Sen. Jill Schupp, a St. Louis County Democrat.

For his part, Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard, a Joplin Republican, says he sees no reason why the Senate can’t get back to business. And he sees no reason to apologize to Democrats for ending their filibuster.

“All I did was stop debate and go to the vote,” Richard said. “I don’t need to mend any fences for following the rules.”

Ethics reform

When lawmakers return to the Capitol later this month, one of the first topics they’ll face is legislative ethics reform.

The issue was a top priority of legislative leaders following a year of scandal that resulted in two lawmakers resigning in disgrace over revelations of inappropriate conduct with interns.

The Missouri House quickly approved seven bills within the first month of the session and sent them to the Senate.

The Senate has debated four of those measures, to vary degrees of success.

A proposed one-year cooling off period for lawmakers before they can become lobbyists was watered down by the Senate. A bill restricting how campaign money can be invested was beefed up to add more restrictions on former legislators. A lobbyist gift ban was set aside, as Senators heatedly disagreed over whether a ban was needed.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Kehoe, a Jefferson City Republican, said the fourth bill, which would ban legislators from working as paid political consultants while in office, will likely be sent to the governor shortly after spring break.

Voter ID

No issue threatens the peace in the Missouri Senate more than a bill mandating voters provide a government-issued photo ID before being allowed to cast a ballot.

It’s been a GOP priority in Missouri for more than a decade. But every year it runs into insurmountable roadblocks, from courts that deemed the idea unconstitutional to Gov. Jay Nixon’s veto pen.

This year, with massive veto-proof super majorities in both the House and Senate, Republicans expect 2016 to finally be the year voter ID gets across the finish line.

The only thing that stands in their way is another Democratic filibuster. And Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, a St. Louis Democrat, has promised to lead the filibuster if voter ID is brought up on the Senate floor.

Nasheed believes the bill would disfranchise thousands of Missourians, particularly people of color and those living in poverty.

Another extended filibuster could lead Republicans to once again cut off debate using the procedure known as “moving the previous question,” or “PQ.”

And that could irrevocably break the Senate.

“The filibuster is a tool,” Kehoe said. “The PQ is a tool. I don’t want to say there’s only one way to get to an end on (voter ID). Democrats know it’s an important issue to us. There’s no way of knowing how that ends.”

Schupp said she’s hopeful both sides can sit down after spring break and discuss how the Senate can function for the next two months and avoid another confrontation.

“If we have to do this, if we have to pass voter ID, is there any way to make it a little less horrific to the Democrats?” Schupp said. “I don’t know that there is, but we want to have that conversation. And we want to talk about what other divisive issues they’d be willing to take off the table to give them voter ID.”

Mizzou

As the Senate begins its deliberations on the state’s $27 billion budget, the fate of the University of Missouri looms large.

The House voted to cut nearly $8 million from the budget of the UM System administration, which includes the president’s office and the board of curators. An additional $1 million was taken from the Columbia campus’s budget and redirected to Lincoln University in Jefferson City.

Both moves were in response to a year of unrest over racial tensions on the school’s flagship Columbia campus.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Kurt Schaefer, a Columbia Republican, expressed support for the moves Thursday, saying “there has to be accountability for bad management.”

“The only tool we have to hold the University of Missouri accountable is the budget,” Schaefer said.

The university system received $434 million in state funds for the budget of the current fiscal year that ends July 1.

Final stretch

The list of proposals lawmakers may consider in the session’s final two months is long.

The “religious freedom” bill that derailed the Senate is now in the hands of the Missouri House. If passed, voters would be asked later this year whether to amend the state’s constitution to allow certain individuals and businesses to refuse service to same-sex couplesbased on religious grounds.

Senate leaders have vowed to debate possible solutions to cover a gap in funding for Missouri’s roads and bridges, although widespread opposition to any tax increase will likely make that debate difficult.

Bills allowing concealed weapons to be carried on campus, and implementing new restrictions on abortion providers, are also expected to get a lot of debate.

Kansas City officials are closely watching bills that would eliminate the city’s 1 percent earnings tax, repeal local regulations on taxis and vehicle for hire companies like Uber, and limit punishments that can be doled out by municipal courts.

Richard, the Senate president, said Republicans still hold 24 of the Senate’s 34 seats. The last two weeks of Democrat stall tactics won’t change the way the Senate operates moving forward, he said.

“We’re still (24),” he said, “so we’re still going to move on our business as the majority party.”

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