Capitol Reports, Jan. 6, 2012

In Legislative News, Missouri Press News On
- Updated

Headline:  Missouri’s General Assembly begins, legislative leaders cite the budget, education and business as the top agenda. [Entered: 01/04/2012]

In opening-day addresses on Wednesday [Jan. 4], the top leaders of Missouri’s House and Senate cited similar issues as top priorities for lawmakers to resolve — education funding, the budget and pro-business legislation.

The legislature’s regular session begins just a few months after lawmakers failed in the summer special session to pass the governor’s package of business tax breaks for economic development.

Senate President Pro Tem Rob Mayer said that failure has created an incentive for the regular session. “A lot of legislators, including myself, were disappointed that we didn’t get done what we wanted to during special session and that gives us the incentive to get some things done in this new session,” Mayer said.

Both Mayer and House Speaker Steve Tilley stressed bi-partisan cooperation in their opening-day remarks.

“In seven years, I’ve done my best to foster bi-partisanship,” Tilley told his colleagues. “When I go back to private life, my fondest memories will not be the bills I help pass or even the fights we won on the floor. Instead, it will be the moments of friendship I shared with both Republicans and Democrats, both House members and Senate members.”

On the Senate side, Republican Mayer had the Senate’s Democratic leader, Victor Callahan, join Republican leaders in the pre-session news conference.

Both Mayer and Tilley are serving their final year in their chambers — blocked by term limits from seeking re-election.

The one note of partisan disagreement came on the Republican leaders’ push for swift passage of a pro-business agenda.

“You’re not going to bring back prosperity by lowering the middle class’s wages and taking away their rights,” Callahan said.

Among the biggest challenges facing lawmakers will be to balance the budget with what budget officials estimate will be a $500 million or larger shortfall in revenue.

For the last few years, the state has been balancing its budget with federal economic recovery money that has been used up. In addition, the federal government is lowering the share of funding it picks up for Medicaid that covers health care costs for the lower income. The federal government also has restricted states from making cuts in the program.

Legislative budget leaders have warned that higher education likely will suffer the brunt of the resulting budget cuts. In December, Gov. Jay Nixon’s administration floated the idea of borrowing money from the state’s larger universities to help cover the budget shortfall. The idea quickly was rejected by legislative budget leaders and ultimately was dropped by Nixon.

Nixon is scheduled to present his budget plan to lawmakers on Jan. 17. The legislative session adjourns in mid-May.

Republican legislative leaders vowed that tax increases were off the table for dealing with the budget shortfall.

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Headline:  Education is cited as the top issue for Missouri’s 2012 session. [Entered: 01/03/2012]

The top leaders of Missouri’s legislature cited education funding as the “must-pass” issue for the 2012 session in interviews before the start of the legislative session.

“I’ve been here eight years and every year that we try to fix the broken schools with a different idea and all you hear is ‘no.’ And what ends up happening is that we get the status quo and we shuffle thousands of kids through failing schools,” House Speaker Steve Tilley said in an interview the day before the start of the legislative session.

Senate President Pro Tem Rob Mayer was just as forceful.  “We must also address the revolving door of dropouts and failed policies in our state’s two largest school districts: St. Louis and Kansas City. Both have a decades-old cycle of failing their students,” Mayer said in an address to the Senate on the legislature’s opening day.

Under state law, children in those unaccredited districts have the right to attend schools in any other district — an issue that has raised concerns from St. Louis County school districts.

One alternative idea proposed in the Senate would to split up one or both of the urban districts among the outlying, accredited suburban districts.

Other lawmakers have proposed alternatives to public schools for students in the unaccredited districts.

On the first day of the session, Tilley added some school-choice proponents to the House Education Committee.

But the “school choice” or “voucher” idea was rejected decisively by the House in the past.

In 2007, the House defeated a proposal pushed by then-Gov. Matt Blunt to provide tax credits for parents in St. Louis and Kansas City to send their children to private schools.

The House Education Committee Chair, Maynard Wallace, R-Thornfield, a former school superintendent and principal, was among the opponents. More than one-third of the House Republicans along with an overwhelming majority of Democrats voted against the Republican governor’s plan.

Also facing the state lawmakers is a problem funding the School Foundation Formula, which allocates funds among local school districts.

The goal of the formula, to equalize per-student spending among school districts, has failed because the state has been unable to sustain the level of funding increases required to achieve that goal.

Past efforts to fix the formula have run into opposition from legislators representing richer districts that would suffer state funding reductions in order to shift money to poorer districts.

A group of lawmakers has been working on crafting a new approach. However Mayer conceded that some opposition remains in his chamber’s GOP caucus.

* Get the defeated 2007 school bill, HB 808 [ http://www.mdn.org/cgi-bin/bills/billhttp.exe?FORM=HB&NUM€8&YEAR 07 ] .

* Get the roll-call vote on HB 808 [ http://www.mdn.org/2007/FORMS/VIEWVOTE.HTM?ne_year 07&ne_vote˜6 ] .

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Headline:  State tax revenues drop below projections. [Entered: 01/05/2012]

By Jordan Shapiro
State revenue collections dropped more than two percent last month compared to December 2010 according to the General Revenue report released Thursday.

The 2.1 percent drop is unwelcome news to a General Assembly already faced with a budget shortfall of nearly $455 million from the last fiscal year. State Budget Director Linda Luebbering described the revenue report with one word — “bad.”

Overall, year-to-date General Revenue collections saw a 1.2 percent gain compared to the last fiscal year. The gain, however, is still small compared to the estimated 3.6 percent revenue growth for fiscal year 2012 projected by top budget officials a year ago.

The hardest hit revenue area in 2011 was in corporate income tax receipts, which dipped 10.5 percent for the month of December. Sales tax receipts dipped 4 percent last month despite the Christmas holiday shopping season.

The fiscal year 2013 budget was already facing a decrease of $650 million from last year due to the use of one-time federal money that has now run out. The state budget took another hit when matching federal funds for Medicaid reimbursement decreased, leaving a $90 million hole.

The 3.9 percent projected revenue growth would bring $285 million to help offset the projected shortfall. Luebbering expressed confidence in the government’s ability to handle the crisis.

“I don’t really talk about it in terms of a shortfall because when the governor presents his budget it will be balanced,” Luebbering said.

In order to combat the budget hole, Luebbering said that Medicaid cuts would be on the table despite some restrictions imposed by the federal government.

When states accepted money to help balanced their budgets in 2009, the federal government prevented them from cutting many Medicaid benefits, including cuts in eligibility. One state–Maine–is defying the federal government by cutting eligibility, a cut Luebbering said will not happen in Missouri.

“We would not want to jeopardize our federal money we get for the Medicaid program,” Luebbering said.

Missourians will get their first glimpse into solving the budget shortfall when the Governor presents his budget plan Jan. 17. The General Assembly then has until May 11 to pass the 2013 state operating budget.

* Get the text story [ http://www.mdn.org/2012/STORIES/REVENUE.HTM ] .

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Headline:  Business organizations unveil their priorities for the legislative session. [Entered: 01/03/2012]

Missouri’s major business organizations presented a relatively small package of proposals on the eve of the legislature’s regular session.

At a Tuesday (Jan. 3) news conference, the organizations presented three proposals — none involving business tax breaks that had been pushed during the legislature’s special session last summer.

Instead, the proposals deal with other financial concerns of business — imposing restrictions on discrimination lawsuits against business, imposing limitations on liability lawsuits against business and reversing a couple of court decisions expanding coverage for workers injured on the job.

“This is not a wish-list,” said Missouri Chamber of Commerce President Dan Mehan. “We are putting Missouri jobs and Missouri workers at risk if we don’t address these issues now.”

The legislature passed a discrimination lawsuit restriction bill in 2011, but it was vetoed by the governor.

In his veto letter, Gov. Jay Nixon charged the bill “represents a significant retreat from the basic principles of fairness embodied in the Missouri Human Rights Act and erects unacceptable impediments to those victimized by discrimination and seeking to avail themselves of the Act’s legal protection.”

* Get the 2011 bill, SB 188 [http://www.mdn.org/cgi-bin/bills/billhttp.exe?FORM=SB&NUM8&YEAR 11].

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Headline:  House Budget Chair plans to roll back Governor’s budget flexibility [Entered: 01/05/2012]

By Jordan Shapiro
State agencies and Gov. Jay Nixon would no longer be able to spend money outside the normal budget process if a top budget official is successful in eliminating the General Assembly’s practice of granting that power.

Budget Chair Ryan Silvey, R-Kansas City, has said he plans on eliminating the General Assembly’s practice of placing a “1E” on specific budget line items, which allows the governor and other state agencies to spend an unspecified amount of money on particular budget lines.

“It is unlikely there will be ‘1E’ anywhere in this state’s budget,” Silvey said.

State Budget Director Linda Luebbering said she had some major concerns regarding Silvey’s plan to eliminate the “1E” from the state budget. Her top concern focused on disaster relief, the same topic that has led to the proposed change.

“If that ‘1E’ goes away and they don’t put a very large number to replace it, we would be in jeopardy of not having the budgetary authority to do what we need to do to help communities recover,” Luebbering said.

* Get the Print Story here [http://www.mdn.org/2012/STORIES/1E.HTM].

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Headline:  Capitol Perspectives: A Session of Limited Expectations [Entered: 01/06/2012]

By Phill Brooks

If you listen to the statehouse pundits, lobbyists and even some legislators you would not hold out much hope for the 2012 legislative session.

The cards certainly seem stacked against the 2nd Regular Session of the 96th General Assembly.

There are so many reasons one can cite for a legislative session of little accomplishment.

It’s a presidential election year. And, historically, that’s not been a year for state lawmakers to pass major policy initiatives.

Rather, election year politics tend to frustrate policy initiative. And sometimes, politics becomes the dominating objective for the session. Think back to 2004 when the Republican-controlled legislature put a gay-marriage ban on the ballot in hopes of bringing more conservatives to the polls.

Compounding this year’s legislative session are the wounds from the summer’s special session that led to deep splits between House and Senate Republican leaders.

Although their top leaders have made public statements about mending fences, the two chambers remain deeply divided over scaling back tax breaks for developers. That split contributed to the legislature’s failure to pass the governor’s economic development package of tax breaks for business and developers.

Now, with Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder dropping out of the race for governor, Republicans do not have an obvious standard bearer to bring those various factions of the party together. On the Democratic side, Gov. Jay Nixon, facing legislative critics from his own party, has not played a major role as an active legislative leader.

Top legislative leaders may have a diminished role as well because the General Assembly’s two top leaders are lame ducks. Term limits make this the final year for the House speaker and the Senate president pro tem.

It’s been my experience that when a lawmaker involuntarily is forced out of office by term limits, there’s a noticeable drop in drive and initiative in the final year. I’ve sensed almost a degree of depression from some legislators who are being forced out of office after spending so much time and effort developing expertise in complicated state issues.

I still recall vividly the near tears I saw on the faces of a few legislative lions who were in the first wave of those forced out office after decades of legislative service.

Overhanging this session will be a budget crisis of near historic proportions. There will not be any funds to implement new policy initiatives.

Instead, identifying where to cut the state’s budget could open some deep splits. That’s a real possibility with education, where lawmakers will face tough choices on picking winners and losers in reallocating state funds to local schools.

Despite all of these negative factors, I’m not ready to write off this year’s legislative session.

Election year politics sometimes can be an incentive for lawmakers to get something done. I think of 2000. In that year, your state legislature adopted the “No-Call Law” that gives you the right to stop phone-call interruptions from telemarketers. It was one of the most significant consumer-impact issues passed in some time.

An extensive package of law enforcement provisions to deal with illegal foreigners was passed in 2008. It was the same year that a broad business-tax break package for economic development cleared the legislature.

And, sometimes, term limits can empower a legislator to rise above political concerns. That was one of arguments made by supporters of term limits when the idea was on the ballot.

This year will be a perfect test of that promise. Neither House Speaker Steve Tilley nor Senate President Pro Tem Rob Mayer are seeking election to anything (at least, they’ve not announced anything). So, there’s an opportunity for statesmanship.

And the budget crisis might provide the vehicle.

My government budgeting teacher back in graduate school would argue that a budget shortfall can provide policy makers with the opportunity to make change. When there’s no disagreement that cuts have to be made, he would argue, it can open the door to more productive discussions about restructuring and refocusing priorities.

This legislative session will have to do something about education funding. The legal formula for dividing state funds among the state’s school districts requires a level of funding that will not be available. The formula effectively is broken.

Revising that formula will open up several other major education policy issues, including school vouchers to let parents use state funds for sending their children to alternatives to public education, expanding non-traditional charter schools, and finally, addressing the loss of accreditation by the school districts in Missouri’s two largest cities.

The legislature’s two top leaders, its House speaker and Senate president pro tem, have made the state’s education problems a “must-pass” issue. If the legislature is able to address either one of those educational issues, with all the political baggage that has blocked action in the past, it could be a major breakthrough — whether an achievement or not will depend, of course, on your thoughts about school choice and alternatives to public education.

I’m not predicting a productive session, but I’m also not willing to rule out the possibilities. In less than six months, we’ll have the answer.

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[Phill Brooks has been a Missouri statehouse reporter since 1970, making him dean of the statehouse press corps. He is the statehouse correspondent for KMOX Radio, director of MDN and a faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism. He has covered every governor since the late Warren Hearnes.

Past columns are available at http://www.mdn.org/mpacol.]

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