St. Louis Post-Dispatch: Missouri Legislature moving forward without Greitens at session’s halfway point

JEFFERSON CITY • Most legislators had high hopes for Gov. Eric Greitens’ first year in office. But despite a few legislative victories, predictions of a productive 2017 session mostly fell flat.

Now, lawmakers are roughly halfway through this year’s session. And while they have begun a process that might lead to Greitens’ impeachment, they appear to have shaken off the frustrations experienced last session.

At this point in 2017, senators had sent “right-to-work” legislation to Greitens and had voted to change who could be an expert witness in civil trials, two long-sought pro-business measures. But their pace of work was at a crawl. By the time they split town for spring recess, senators had given first-round approval to just 16 bills.

So far this year, that figure stands at 72.

“Based on a lot of the noise going on, the Senate and the House have operated the way they should be,” Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard, R-Joplin, said Thursday as lawmakers were leaving town for a weeklong spring break. “The ship of state is sailing in clear water. We have a clear path forward. We know what we want to do and how we’re going to accomplish it.”

Even with the Legislature’s fast pace this year, however, some lawmakers contend that the extramarital affair, legal troubles and unpopularity of the state’s chief executive have overshadowed the session.

“I think it hangs over all of our heads,” said Sen. Jill Schupp, D-Creve Coeur. “I think it brings down the way people feel about the state of Missouri, both within our state and, frankly, across the country.”

Despite the turmoil roiling the executive branch, the GOP-controlled Legislature has rolled along, endorsing several pro-business measures.

Both the Senate and the House approved versions of legislation allowing utilities to recoup more of their costs from customers, in exchange for caps on rate increases. Senators OK’d a reduction in taxes for telephone companies that could cost cities millions of dollars, and House members voted to repeal the state’s prevailing wage law, which conservatives have pursued for years.

The House budget committee finalized its version of the state’s finances Wednesday, and the full House is expected to debate the plan after this week’s spring break. Other high-profile debates over guns, new restrictions on welfare, the state Board of Education and the date of an impending “right to work” referendum await.

Added to the mix: When lawmakers return to the Capitol on March 26, the deadline for the findings of the committee investigating Greitens will be about two weeks away.

Greitens’ stalled agenda

While legislators have moved forward, Greitens’ agenda, as outlined in his State of the State speech, has hit roadblocks.

He devoted much of his 30-minute speech to helping foster children, but lawmakers have not debated any measures to do so on the House or Senate floors. Initiatives to prune the number of state boards and commissions and to allow businesses to preferentially hire veterans have also gone nowhere.

Like last year, Greitens touted a ban on gifts from lobbyists. And, like last year, the House quickly handed the legislation to the Senate, where it has yet to emerge.

Key pieces of the governor’s proposed budget are also not faring well.

The Senate has shunted his tax-cut proposal aside, with Richard saying he was “nervous” about another tax cut. Lawmakers have rejected Greitens’ plan to borrow up to $250 million to help pay tax refunds faster and his proposal for a $25 million infrastructure fund.

In the House, negotiators have stripped out $556,000 Greitens wanted to set aside to pay for firearms and body armor for probation and parole officers.

Greitens trumpeted news that Magnitude 7 Metals was planning a move to the Bootheel. Last summer, he called a special session that cost about $66,000 to approve legislation that would allow Ameren to negotiate special rates with large industrial customers, which Greitens argued was needed to bring the aluminum smelter back online.

But Ameren, which donated tens of thousands to Greitens’ election campaign, is not the utility provider for the new plant. Lately, senators have criticized Greitens for calling the special session.

“It was a lot of time wasted,” said Sen. Doug Libla, R-Poplar Bluff. “All this activity that happened — and our vacations were canceled — was pretty much unnecessary.”

Higher education funding

After last year’s cuts to higher education that led to layoffs at universities, Greitens proposed additional decreases this year. Some universities have been operating at funding levels not seen since the early 2000s, school officials told lawmakers in January.

But Senate and House leaders indicated the hemorrhaging would stop this year, at least partially.

Rep. Scott Fitzpatrick, R-Shell Knob, the House’s budget committee chairman, has said the state will cover higher education funding with money originally planned for the Children’s Health Insurance Program, or CHIP. That money is now free because the federal government funded the program.

“I said from the start that the House would work to find the funds to prevent as much of these cuts as possible,” Fitzpatrick said. “We now have a solution that will help ease the burden on Missouri students and their families.”

As part of the deal, Fitzpatrick has asked universities not to raise tuition. So far, it’s a condition the universities have resisted, and Senators are mulling a measure that would allow colleges to increase tuition beyond the existing cap.

Sen. Dan Brown, R-Rolla, who is Fitzpatrick’s counterpart in the Senate, said he didn’t have a problem with increased tuition. The difference is a potential conflict between the two chambers, he said.

“It may be a point of contention,” he said. “I’m anxious to see what they do about it.”

Utility rates

Lawmakers also prioritized allowing monopoly utilities, such as Ameren, to recoup more of their investments in infrastructure from their customers. The Senate overwhelmingly approved its version after a 25-hour filibuster in February, and the House followed suit Wednesday.

The measures would limit annual average rate increases for residential customers of Ameren at 2.85 percent and require utilities to give customers lower rates to account for the tax cuts approved by Congress earlier this year. Ameren has long argued it needs flexibility to better update the electric grid.

Pro-consumer groups have decried the legislation, arguing it doesn’t explicitly mandate Ameren improve its infrastructure.

“Consumers suffered a tremendous blow,” Cara Spencer, the executive director of the Consumers Council of Missouri, said. The legislation “makes it easier for monopoly investor-owned utility companies to raise rates and shifts the cost burden from our state’s largest energy users to its smallest.”

Changes to civil trials

Lawmakers also have championed changes to civil litigation. On the House side, like last year, a special committee devoted to those changes was formed.

In early March, the House approved a measure to limit how much people exposed to asbestos could collect in damages, and members also approved a proposal to restrict groups of people from combining similar lawsuits. The same legislation has been held up in the Senate.

One long-sought modification that would give arbitrators more power in disputes between employees and employers seems to have died in the House. After Attorney General Josh Hawley suggested that arbitration buried women’s stories of workplace sexual harassment, the legislation was scrapped.

But a similar bill is one of the first items on the Senate’s agenda when it comes back from spring break.

Richard, who is in his last year as a legislator because of term limits, said changing the civil code was a priority of his in his last second half of a session.

“There’s some tort issues I’d like to finish before my time’s up in May,” he said.

On the horizon

In both the Senate and the House, some lawmakers want to move up the referendum vote on the “right-to-work” law. Originally, it was meant to be on the November general election ballot, but lawmakers have introduced proposals to hold it in August, when fewer voters cast ballots.

Filling the leadership board of the state’s elementary education department also looms. By appointing a series of new board members last year, Greitens maneuvered to oust the agency’s popular director, Margie Vandeven. But the moves have left the board without enough members to operate.

Another board that doesn’t have enough members to operate is the Missouri Ethics Commission, before which is a complaint against Greitens. If Greitens doesn’t appoint some members soon, the Senate will “create options” to resolve the issue, Richard said before going on break.

How Greitens has handled appointing board members has rankled senators, who technically need to confirm his selections. “The process was bastardized,” said Sen. Gary Romine, R-Farmington, who has introduced a proposal that would prevent governors from acting how Greitens has.

Another potential high-profile debate is whether to expand where people can carry guns. The legislation was approved by a committee but has yet to come to the House floor.

The House and Senate are off this week and will return on March 26. The session is scheduled to end May 18.

Kurt Erickson of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this

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