By PHILL BROOKS
The Missouri Legislature began a week-long break March 15, making now a good time to assess where the General Assembly may head in the second half of this year’s session.
Taxes, school choice, voter rights and COVID-19 promise to be dominating issues.
• Fuel tax – The Senate passed a per-gallon motor fuel tax increase to improve highways, but added a provision that you can get a refund of the higher tax if you’re willing to go through the paperwork to file a claim.
That essentially makes it a voluntary contribution.
• Online sales tax – Both the House and Senate approved measures to impose a sales tax on more of your online sales from out-of-state merchants.
But they included an income tax cut that could be deeper than the revenue gains from the online-tax, according to legislative staff estimates.
Republicans, including the governor, have backed subjecting more online purchases to state sales taxes as a protection for local Missouri merchants facing increased competition from tax-free online services during the COVID-19 era.
COVID-19 also has been cited by Republicans for expanding school choice (Editor’s note: charter schools) because of public school restrictions on in-person classes during the pandemic.
Proposals pending in the Legislature’s final weeks include tax credits for parents to send their kids to private schools and to provide rights for students to transfer to schools in other districts.
This issue has a long divisive history, including among Republicans (who hold super majorities in both houses of the Legislature) because of strong rural GOP support for their local public school districts.
In other issues related to COVID-19, the Legislature is expected to further address Gov. Mike Parson’s proposal to protect businesses and health care workers from lawsuits involving COVID-19. (Editor’s Note: The Missouri Senate, on Feb. 23, forwarded legislation limiting coronavirus-related lawsuits to the House for further action. But Republicans who control the upper chamber failed to muster enough votes to give the measure an immediate effective date, which could open a window for lawsuits to be filed.)
RESTRICTING LOCAL HEALTH BOARDS
Another major COVID-19 issue for the Legislature’s final weeks involves restricting local government health boards from imposing restrictions or requirements to deal with the pandemic.
Some of the storm over that issue may have been lessened by House approval of a scaled-down approach that focuses on limiting how long restrictions can last and giving city and county elected governing bodies authority over health orders.
After the national Republican losses in 2020, Missouri Republicans are renewing their efforts to restore the strict requirement for a photo ID to vote that Missouri’s Supreme Court struck down last year. (Editor’s Note: The state Supreme Court ruling, handed down on Jan. 14, 2020, allowed voters can once again bring non-photo identification — like a voter ID card, college ID or a utility bill — to the polls without having to sign an affidavit stating they don’t have “a form of personal identification approved for voting.”)
Republicans in the Legislature also want to make it tougher for Missourians to put on the ballot proposals to change state law or the Constitution, following recent successful ballot campaigns on issues like lobbyist restrictions, Medicaid expansion and a minimum wage increase that had stalled in the GOP-controlled legislature.
There are, of course, the usual ideological and partisan issues that so often spark Senate filibusters in the second half of the legislative session.
This year they include liability lawsuit protections for businesses and expanded firearm rights including allowing concealed weapons on some forms of public transportation, such as buses.
Congressional redistricting was supposed to have been another partisan food-fight, but the U.S. Census Bureau delay in reporting census data makes it unlikely the Legislature will be able to deal with the issue in the regular session.
As always, the budget will be a major issue with the state Constitution imposing a deadline one week before the end of the session.
However, the budget might be a bit easier this year because of higher revenue collection increase estimates than last year when the financial impact of COVID-19 forced deep cuts in state spending.
But funding for Medicaid expansion approved by Missouri voters in 2020 could be contentious. House Budget Committee Chair Codie Smith (R-Carthage) has put Medicaid expansion funding into a separate bill rather than including it in the normal bill that covers Medicaid.
That could make it easier to kill Medicaid expansion funding without endangering the much larger budget for other Medicaid and other social services programs.
Smith also has filed a proposed constitutional amendment that would make Medicaid expansion subject to legislative appropriation.
(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 Missouri Digital News [MDN] and an emeritus faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism. He has covered every governor since the late Warren Hearnes.)