BUDGET LOOMS LARGE AS 2012 SESSION GETS UNDERWAY
The 96th Missouri General Assembly convened its second regular session on Jan. 4 with lawmakers bracing for yet another round of deep budget cuts and Republican leaders offering more modest legislative agendas in the wake of two unproductive legislative sessions in 2011 that were derailed by disagreements between the GOP majorities in the Senate and House of Representatives. The 2012 legislative session will end on May 18.
With an estimated $550 million general revenue shortfall expected in the state operating budget for the 2013 fiscal year, which begins July 1, lawmakers must again contemplate ways to reduce spending. However, after a decade of significant cuts most, if not all, of the easy-to-eliminate items are long gone from the state budget, leaving only core state services remaining. As they have throughout the state's continuing budget troubles, legislative leaders have ruled out virtually any form of tax increase to offset cuts.
Efforts to rewrite the formula for distributing state funding to local school districts will also figure prominently, and likely generate controversy. The existing formula was enacted in 2005, but was to be phased on over seven years, instead of all at once, in order to keep the annual funding increases it called for at a manageable level. However, the formula hasn't been fully funded in recent years, a contingency it wasn't designed for. Although changing the formula is necessary to account for the insufficient funding, tinkering would inevitably result in some districts having their state funding reduced from existing levels. As a result, any proposed solution that doesn't involve increasing formula funding - and no such increase is expected to be forthcoming - is almost certain to prove unpalatable to some group of lawmakers.
Although lawmakers again identified job creation as a top priority, the ambitious and wide-ranging proposals that sparked disagreements between House and Senate Republicans last year have largely been set aside. Instead, GOP leaders said they would focus on legislation sought by business groups that have little direct bearing on job creation, such as making it more difficult to prove employment discrimination, limiting the financial liability of lawsuit defendants and requiring losing parties to pay the winner's legal fees.
SUPREME COURT EXPEDITES SENATE REDISTRICTING CASE
In an exceedingly rare move, the Missouri Supreme Court on Jan. 4 accepted original jurisdiction in a lawsuit challenging the validity of new state Senate districts that were recently drawn by a panel of state appellate judges. Columbia attorney David Brown took the unusual step of asking the high court to allow the case to bypass the trial level, typically a mandatory first step for any lawsuit, because the candidate filing period for the 2012 elections begins Feb. 28, thus requiring a prompt resolution to the case. The Supreme Court will hear arguments in the case on Jan. 12.
The Appellate Reapportionment Commission, which consisted of six members of the Missouri Court of Appeals selected for the job by the Supreme Court, submitted redistricting plans for both the Senate and House of Representatives on Nov. 30. After being harshly criticized for ignoring the Missouri Constitution's general prohibition against splitting counties among Senate districts, the commission on Dec. 9 rescinded its original Senate redistricting plan and replaced it with a new one that corrected some -- but not all -- of the unconstitutional county splits.
The lawsuit, which names a Lafayette County woman as the plaintiff, alleges that the second map should be invalidated because the commission had no constitutional authority to submit it and that the first map should be invalidated because of its unconstitutional county splits. The plaintiff asks that the existing Senate districts, which were created in 2001 and were to be replaced to reflect population shifts under the 2010 U.S. Census, instead be used for the 2012 election cycle. The commission House redistricting plan, which is also slated to be used for this year's elections, is not being challenged.
SENATE PUSHING BILL TO PREVENT LOSS OF HIGHWAY FUNDS
The Senate is expediting legislation that would put Missouri in compliance with federal mandates on commercial trucking regulations and drunken driving sentences in order to avoid the potential loss of millions of dollars in federal highway construction funds. The deadline for compliance on the trucking regulations is Jan. 30, but the state likely will escape penalty so long as it resolves the issue in the near future.
The Senate Transportation Committee on Jan. 11 took the uncommon step of hearing the federal mandate legislation, SB 443, and voting on the same day to forward it to the full Senate for debate. The bill would modify the state laws that requiring commercial truck drivers to have medical clearance in order to work. Failure to do so potentially could cost Missouri $30 million in federal transportation funding in the first year of noncompliance and $60 million in the second year.
SB 443 also would lengthen the license suspension period for drunken drivers from 30 days to 45 days and other related changes. Missouri is already out of compliance on that issue and isn't losing any funding as a result. However, about $20 million in federal transportation funds are being redirected from construction to highway safety improvements until the federal mandate is met.
NIXON PROPOSES HALF-BILLION IN STATE BUDGET CUTS
In delivering his fourth State of the State address, Governor Jay Nixon on Jan. 17 proposed $500 million in spending cuts in order to balance a $22.98 billion state operating budget for the 2013 fiscal year without a tax increase. Nixon, a Democrat, also outlined his policy priorities for the 2012 legislative session, which include protecting worker rights, reforming charter schools, reinstating campaign contribution limits and a job creation package that emphasizes revitalizing the automotive industry in Missouri.
Although the governor's proposed budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1 would increase basic state funding for local public schools by $5 million to more than $3 billion, it also calls for cutting higher education spending by $105.9 million. It would be the third consecutive year that state funding of public colleges and universities would be reduced. Nixon's budget balancing plan also calls for saving $191.7 million through efficiencies in the state's Medicaid program, with no changes in eligibility or covered services.
In addition, the governor called for eliminating another 800 state jobs, bringing the total number of positions cut from the state workforce since he took office in 2009 to more than 4,100 and resulting in the smallest number of total state employees in 15 years. To provide additional state revenue collections in the future, Nixon also asked lawmakers to eliminate some the tax credits programs that are siphoning about $700 million a year from the budget. Although the Senate last year made tax credit reform a priority, Republican leaders in the House of Representatives refused to go along. As a result, it is unlikely lawmakers will actively pursue reform efforts this year.
HOUSE PASSES AMENDMENT TO FURTHER LIMIT SPENDING
The House of Representatives voted 105-54 in favor of a proposed constitutional amendment that would place new restrictions on the General Assembly's ability to increase state spending. HJR 43, the first legislation the House has debated this year, advanced to the Senate on a near-party-line vote, with majority Republicans in favor and minority Democrats opposed.
The measure is a top priority of House Speaker Steve Tilley, R-Perryville, who said it would end the "boom and bust" cycles in the state budget. House Democrats agreed but said it would leave Missouri in a perpetual state of "bust." After a decade of deep state budget cuts, opponents said the measure would prevent the state from being able to reverse those cuts in the future.
HJR 43 would cap annual spending at the rate of inflation plus population growth and 1.5 percent and require any excess revenue collections in a given year to be held in reserve. If also approved by the Senate, the measure would go on the November ballot for voter ratification.
HOUSE COMMITTEE ADVANCES PHOTO VOTER ID BILL
The House Elections Committee on Jan. 24 voted 7-3 in favor of legislation that seeks to require voters to show government-issued photo identification at their polling place in order to cast a ballot. At present, however, the General Assembly lacks the constitutional authority to impose such a requirement. Governor Jay Nixon, a Democrat, vetoed similar legislation last year and is expected to do so again should the latest version, HB 1104, be sent to his desk.
The Republican-controlled legislature enacted a photo voter ID law in 2006, but the Missouri Supreme Court ruled that lawmakers cannot impose restrictions on voting rights other than those specifically listed in the state constitution. The General Assembly in 2011 approved a proposed constitutional amendment that would authorize the imposition of a photo voter ID requirement, but it doesn't go on the statewide ballot until November.
Supporters say the photo voter ID requirement would prevent voter fraud, but Missouri has never had a documented case of voter impersonation at the polls - the only type of fraud such a requirement could prevent. Opponents assert that photo voter ID is just a thinly disguised effort to disenfranchise poor, disabled and elderly voters, since they are the least likely to have a photo ID and tend to vote for Democrats. The Missouri Secretary of State's Office estimates that about 250,000 registered Missouri voters don't have a government-issued photo ID.
GAMBLING INDUSTRY OPPOSES FEE HIKE FOR VETERANS
A lobbyist for Missouri's casinos told the House Veterans Committee on Jan. 24 that the industry will oppose bipartisan legislation to increase casino entrance fees by $1 per person and earmark the estimated $50 million a year in new revenue for the state's veterans homes. Governor Jay Nixon recently proposed the fee hike to shore up the Veterans Trust Fund, which is on the verge of being used up by mid-2013.
The current casino entrance fee, which is paid by casino operators, is $2, with half going to the state and half going to the local community in which the casino is located. All of the state's share used to be earmarked for veterans programs until the late 1990's, when most of it was redirected toward early childhood education programs. Over time, the $6.5 million a year from the existing fee that still goes into the Veterans Trust Fund has proven insufficient to keep up with the costs of veterans services.
BLACK CAUCUS VOWS TO FIGHT EFFORTS TO GUT ANTI-DISCRIMINATION LAWSBills advancing in General Assembly would weaken Missouri Human Rights Act
The Legislative Black Caucus today vowed to vigorously fight all attempts to weaken the Missouri Human Rights Act and reverse decades of civil rights progress. At issue is legislation that seeks to bar the courthouse doors to many legitimate claims of employment discrimination and further protect wrongdoers by limiting damage awards in those cases that still manage to clear the proposed new legal hurdles.
"The Missouri Human Rights Act is neither onerous nor complex," said Legislative Black Caucus Chairman Steve Webb, D-Florissant. "Employers who treat their workers with fairness and respect have nothing to fear. But if an employer wrongfully discriminates, the law will hold it accountable for its actions. We do not feel that expecting businesses to treat all people with dignity is asking too much of them."
The Senate began debating its version of the discrimination bill, SB 592, on Wednesday, but the Senate's only three African-American members successfully prevented it from coming to the quick vote that supporters had sought. The Senate is expected to resume debate on the bill this afternoon.
"This bill does not address the sanctity of the worker in our state," said state Senator Robin Wright-Jones, D-St. Louis. "Civil rights offices in St. Louis and Kansas City strive to eliminate, reduce and remedy discrimination in various areas of our state, including housing, employment and education. How can we say we are protecting the sanctity of the worker when legislation such as SB 592 would eliminate these offices' roles, offices that work to protect the best interest of the citizens of our state?"
During a news conference in the Capitol, the Black Caucus announced its full support of the efforts of its Senate members to block SB 592. The caucus also denounced the House version of the measure, HB 1219, which was recently approved by the House Workforce Development Committee and could be brought up by the full House for debate as early as this week.
"This legislation would be devastating to those who have been discriminated against in the workplace, and the Black Caucus is committed to fighting these bills every step of the way," said state Senator Kiki Curls, D-Kansas City.
Governor Jay Nixon vetoed similar legislation last year, and the Legislative Black Caucus is confident he will do so again if the efforts to stop the bills from clearing the Republican-controlled General Assembly fall short.
"Gutting Missouri's anti-discrimination laws would allow unscrupulous employers to do whatever they want to workers, for whatever reason they want, without fear of consequence," said state Senator Maria Chappelle-Nadal, D-University City. "Missouri must not put profit ahead of people, and this legislation must not become law."