Lawmakers' final week: Lots of legislation in limbo
During the last few years, Missouri lawmakers have headed into the final week of the General Assembly scrambling to resolve controversies over proposed massive economic-development packages and tax credit proposals.
This time, big issues remain unresolved -- including workers' comp, charter schools, economic development. And the bills may remain unpassed when the week is over.
Even state House Speaker Steve Tilley acknowledges the last days of this session appear likely to be “anticlimactic, compared to most years.”
But the speaker – who’s leaving office because of term limits -- added in an interview that the lack of weighty debates during this final week isn’t necessarily bad.
“We’ve nailed all the big things,’’ contended Tilley, R-Perryville. He credited the fact that last week saw a flurry of activity, as lawmakers approved a contentious state budget before Friday’s deadline, and voted to place on this fall's ballot changes in Missouri’s system for selecting judges for the state’s appeals and Supreme Court.
Tilley said that the budget passed by the General Assembly “lives within our means and invests in our priorities.” He added that he also was pleased that legislators met one of his top priorities for the session -- “to find a dedicated funding source” for the state-run veterans homes.
“All the other stuff, we’d like to see all of it done, but I don’t think there’s anything that has to pass,” the speaker said.
Start of update: On Monday, Tilley answered one of the biggest outstanding questions when he hastily scheduled the installation of a bronze bust honoring controversial commentator Rush Limbaugh. End update.
Workers comp likely to be revived
As Tilley and Senate Majority Leader Tom Dempsey see it, the biggest outstanding matter – and perhaps the focus of the final week – will be to craft a revised version of a bill changing the state’s workers compensation system.
Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, vetoed legislators’ first attempt earlier this year, saying that version – sponsored by Dempsey -- was unfair to workers, especially whistleblowers.
Tilley and Dempsey, R-St. Charles, dispute the governor’s reasoning. But since the House doesn’t have the GOP numbers to override Nixon, Tilley said, legislative leaders are looking at alternatives that might be palatable to all.
Business groups, including the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry, maintain that the workers compensation system must be fixed, and soon.
“It’s killing businesses with the lawsuits flying back and forth,” Dempsey said. “I continue to hear from employees in my district about the co-employee liability piece and it needs to be fixed.”
The sticking point, Dempsey said, is whether to take occupational disease claims out of civil court and into the workers' compensation system. Opponents argue that such a change would curtail the ability of people who contract catastrophic diseases on the job from obtaining maximum restitution.
“I think there’s an opportunity to get something done and I’m hoping the governor will sign it,” Dempsey said. “I don’t think we’re that far apart. “
House Majority Leader Tim Jones, R-Eureka – who is expected to become speaker next year -- said that he also would like to see changes in the workers’ compensation system.
“I would love for the business owners and the job creators in this state to be taken care by the governor for once, instead of the governor taking care of the trial lawyers and big labor,” he asserted.
Education measures may get last look
Tilley and others said that the final week may see legislators take action on a bill to expand charter schools beyond school districts in St. Louis and Kansas City.
Under legislation proposed by state Sen. Bill Stouffer, R-Napton, charter schools could operate within unaccredited districts. They could also spring up in districts that have been provisionally accredited for three years.
Even opponents of the measure – such as Rep. Sara Lampe, D-Springfield – believe the bill has enough votes to pass. Stouffer’s legislation made it through the Missouri Senate by a 31-2 margin. But she expected some within the House’s Democratic caucus would vote against it.
“I don’t want the expansion. And my school says no charter expansion,” said Lampe, referring to Springfield’s school district. “So if I’m going to vote my district, it’s no charter expansion.”
She added, “The other thing is accountability: Are we going to make sure that charters are as accountable as we expect our other public schools to be?”
“And I don’t the language is strong enough,” Lampe said.
House Minority Leader Mike Talboy, D-Kansas City, represents a district with charter schools. He said he would support Stouffer’s legislation, even though the language regulating the charter schools isn’t as strong as he would like. Talboy maintained that the bill is better than the status quo.
“The expansion piece aside, there needs to be more accountability for the school districts that do not perform as well as they should,” Talboy said. “And that’s the piece I’m most concerned with.”
Talboy pointed to the problems that led to the closing of the charter Imagine Schools in St. Louis. “There is a long period of time before you can get those charter schools shut down if they’re not performing,” he said, referring to the current laws. “And I don’t think that’s fair to the kids that are going there.”
Economic development proposals may be resurrected
Tilley noted that the House weeks ago passed a stripped-down economic development package that included, among other things, $60 million to encourage freight-forwarders to direct cargo traffic to Lambert St. Louis International Airport, which is trying to become an international cargo hub.
The bill now is in the Senate where, Tilley acknowledged, some senators continue to oppose any new tax credits until the state revamps its current tax-credit programs.
One of those senators -- Sen. Jason Crowell, R-Cape Girardeau – led a filibuster last week that almost derailed the state budget. Crowell, who also is leaving the Senate because of term limits, has attracted lots of speculation over what he might block – or allow to pass – during the final week.
Crowell isn’t saying. “Sorry, but I can't share my secrets,” he said in a cryptic email Friday. “They make it hard enough for me as it is now.”
But reflecting the apparent lack of acrimony as lawmakers head into this session's final week, Crowell uncharacteristically tacked on the symbol for a smiley face --" :) "-- at the end of his note.
No rush for Rush
As for the Limbaugh bust, Tilley – who as speaker had tapped the commentator for the honor – had said late Friday that the sculpture was delivered to the state Capitol last week by the sculptor.
The sculpture was stored until Monday, when Tilley announced -- with about aa 30-minute warning -- that the ceremony would be held at 1 p.m. Limbaugh attended the closed-door event.
Tilley’s choice of Limbaugh for the Capitol’s Hall of Famous Missourians has come under fire from critics, including women lawmakers, who take issue with some of the commentators’ remarks. U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., even conducted an online petition drive to lobby Tilley to drop his plan for a Limbaugh bust.
Tilley has maintained that Limbaugh was selected because he was famous, not because he was loved.
All told, Tilley selected three native Missourians for the honors. The others were slave Dred Scott, who unsuccessfully sued for his freedom in the 1850s, and Buck O’Neil, the first African-American baseball coach in the American League.
Tilley said he wanted Limbaugh to be present when his bust is installed. And he got his wish.
Limbaugh’s presence during the final week may have killed off any "anticlimactic" vibes.