Missouri Lawmakers Convene; Pledge Good Schools and Jobs
The Missouri General Assembly began its historic 100th edition on Wednesday with its newly elected leaders pledging to pursue an agenda highlighted by good schools and good jobs.
Republican House Speaker Elijah Haahr promised that lawmakers “will create bold solutions for the challenges” facing Missourians, including those trapped in opioid addictions or what he described as “a broken criminal justice system.”
Republican Senate President Pro Tem Dave Schatz said lawmakers also must work to “reduce the burden of government” by promoting reforms to taxes, regulations and lawsuit procedures.
Schatz and Haahr were elected by colleagues to their leadership positions without opposition after lawmakers took the oath of office on a largely ceremonial first day of work. Both replaced leaders who were prohibited by term limits from continuing to serve in the Legislature.
About one-third of the lawmakers are new this year, replacing incumbents who either could not or chose not to run again. But the partisan composition of the House and Senate remains virtually unchanged after November’s elections.
Senate Republicans hold a 24-10 majority over Democrats. House Republicans hold a 115-47 majority over Democrats with one vacancy. Republican Scott Fitzpatrick is to be sworn in as state treasurer next Monday instead of serving the legislative term to which he won re-election.
Missouri has undergone a significant political reshuffling since lawmakers last met in regular session.
Republican Gov. Mike Parson was lieutenant governor at this time last year. Parson took over as chief executive June 1 when Republican Gov. Eric Greitens resigned while facing potential impeachment over allegations of sexual and political misconduct.
Since then, Parson has appointed former state Sen. Mike Kehoe as lieutenant governor, former state Treasurer Eric Schmitt to take over as attorney general following Josh Hawley’s election to the U.S. Senate, and Fitzpatrick to take over as treasurer.
Parson has said he wants to focus on workforce development and infrastructure. But that latter goal will be complicated by the fact that voters in November rejected a proposed gas tax hike that would have raised hundreds of millions of dollars for roads and bridges.
Voters in November also approved a minimum wage increase, legalized medical marijuana and adopted new ethics policies for lawmakers.
House Democratic Leader Crystal Quade said that by passing progressive ballot initiatives and electing a conservative majority, Missouri voters showed they aren’t party loyalists and prefer balance in state government.
Haahr and Schatz both cited a shared goal among lawmakers of a better education system. Haahr pledged that lawmakers would fully fund public schools for the third consecutive year. He also said government policies “must focus on cultivating employers, not controlling businesses.”
Though they made no mention of it in their opening day speeches, Republican leaders also have said they would like to revise a voter-approved constitutional amendment that changes Missouri’s criteria for redrawing state legislative districts after the 2020 census. The new formula is expected to boost Democrats’ chances of winning seats. Any changes would have to be referred back to voters in the form of another constitutional amendment.
Missouri lawmakers will be crafting a budget amid more uncertainty than usual, as the state simultaneously deals with the effects of federal and state income tax changes while also considering changes to state sales tax collections. Parson and legislative budget leaders are forecasting modest 1.7 percent growth for the current budget that ends June 30, although revenues through the first half of the fiscal year were down 2.9 percent. They are projecting an additional 2 percent growth for the 2020 budget that they will prepare this session.
Lawmakers are expected to consider changing state sales tax laws to require out-of-state vendors to collect taxes on items sold to Missouri residents — something made easier to accomplish by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last year.
The first day of the legislative session included a rare joint session of the House and Senate in order to take a group photo commemorating the start of the 100th General Assembly. The Legislature’s terms are numbered in two-year increments, and Missouri is approaching the 200th anniversary of gaining statehood in 1821.