Missouri Legislature Begins 2018 With Unfinished Business
The Republican-controlled Missouri Legislature launched the 2018 annual session Wednesday with a call for stronger ethics laws from the House, talk of tax changes and interest in revisiting issues that took a center stage last year.
House Speaker Todd Richardson said work will begin quickly, with scheduled debates next week on legislation targeting human trafficking and banning lobbyist gifts to lawmakers.
Richardson, Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard and new GOP Gov. Eric Greitens have all said they're interested in revamping state tax laws, but they have been vague on how. Richard pledged caution Wednesday in considering tax cuts.
"I like low taxes, too," Richard said. "But I'm going to be very careful that we're not endangering this institution."
Here's a rundown of top issues for GOP lawmakers this year:
Bills filed thus far include ending a 2 percent discount for businesses that file taxes on time, capping tax credits for low-income housing development and phasing out the state's income tax.
Also at issue is whether to decouple the state from the federal tax code to avoid an automatic carryover of various provisions to Missouri's tax laws.
Richard said staffers still are reviewing the impact of the federal change, while Richardson said he doesn't believe Missouri should break off from the federal code. Richardson said the federal tax cut is expected to have "a manageable hit" to the state budget.
Both Republican Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard and Republican House Majority Leader Rob Vescovo previously cited repealing Missouri's "prevailing wage" law, which sets minimum local wages for public construction projects, as a top priority. Current law requires cities, school districts and other government entities to pay more than the state's minimum wage of $7.85 an hour for public construction and maintenance projects. The rates are calculated on a county-by-county basis.
Critics of the law say it drives up construction costs for schools and other local projects, but supporters argue axing the law would allow the state to undercut union workers.
Also still pending are efforts to require workers to annually opt-in to have union fees and dues automatically taken from their paychecks.
Richard and Richardson said there's more to be done on "tort reform," which generally refers to restrictions on liability lawsuits. Top Missouri business lobbying groups are pushing for change, they said to cut back on unnecessary lawsuits and improve the state's legal climate for businesses.
Legislation filed so far ranges from rules on where lawsuits should be heard to a failed bill filed by Richard last year that critics said would gut state consumer-protection laws.
Despite campaign promises from Greitens to tighten state ethics laws on elected officials, no bills made it to his desk last year. House members, who under Richardson have been at the forefront of those efforts, are trying again this year. A bill by Republican Rep. Justin Alferman to ban lobbyist gifts to public officials is a top contender.
But it's unclear if this year's ethics proposals will make progress in the Senate, where similar bills have died in past sessions.
Richard said Alferman's bill will get a hearing and encouraged House colleagues to "send it on over."
Richard has said undoing cuts to in-home and nursing care for seniors and those with disabilities still is a priority, and he said the goal is to get a fix to Greitens' desk this session. He added that senators are looking at ways to fund roads and bridges, an issue Richardson said the House is considering addressing with a gas tax increase.
Richardson also said the House will work to relax regulations for hair braiders and support policies offering "greater freedom for young Missourians seeking the education that will serve them best."
Greitens is calling on lawmakers to enact improvements to the state's foster care and adoption programs and pass proposals he said will improve life for veterans in the state — topics that appear uncontroversial and likely areas for bipartisanship.
House Democrats have unveiled comprehensive plans to rework ethics laws and address the state's opioid epidemic. There's overlap between Republican and Democratic goals on those issues, but Democratic bills generally have slim odds in the GOP-dominated Legislature.