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Senate leaders like pace after one-third of session has passed

Seven weeks down, and 11 working weeks to go -- 12, if you count the mid-March spring "break."

That's one way of counting progress in the 2013 legislative session, which this year must end at 6 p.m. on May 17.

And, even with last week's storm cutting a day out of their usual Capitol work week, state Senate leaders think the 2013 legislative session is moving at a good pace.

Senators already have sent 29 bills to the House for its consideration.

"I am surprised," Senate Floor Leader Ron Richard, R-Joplin, told reporters last week. "I'm not used to this body passing bills that quickly.

"But there's been a lot of work and conversations outside this (chamber), in the offices, and that's saved us a lot of time."

Floor debates are the final step in a proposed law's passage from one house to the other -- and those debates are the only time amendments can be offered and accepted, or rejected, by all the chamber's members.

But the process never is quite as simple as it might sound.

Besides committee meetings, where bills are explained and the general public -- as well as lobbyists -- can testify about each proposal's pros and cons, there are many informal conversations among lawmakers from the time a bill is introduced until it's ready for the floor debate.

Those conversations often happen in lawmakers' offices, and are where many basic questions get asked and answered, and possible amendments are discussed before being offered to the full chamber.

"We do have a group of people who respect one another," Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey, R-St. Charles, said, "and we've been able to work through some difficult issues already. ...

"I expect the next three weeks, we'll be working very hard into Spring Break."

Dempsey noted the committees are starting to turn in bills they're recommending for full Senate debate, including the Republicans' priority measures.

"The economic development bill ... could come up (this) week, and it's a priority for the caucus on comprehensive economic development," Dempsey explained.

Richard and Dempsey acknowledged some proposals likely will slow down the Senate's debate in the coming weeks -- including measures:

  • Requiring Missourians to show a photo ID before being able to vote at a polling place.
  • Prohibiting public employee labor unions from having their fees withheld from employees' paychecks, while requiring those unions to get an employee's permission before those fees and dues can be used for political purposes.
  • Cutting taxes on businesses, individuals -- or both.
  • Reforming the way tax credits are issued -- or eliminating them.
  • Changing Missouri's workplace discrimination laws, which supporters say will improve Missouri's business climate and opponents say will make it easier to discriminate against people.
  • Letting voters change the Constitution so a one-cent sales tax could be used to pay for transportation improvements over the next decade.
  • Allowing electric utility companies to make infrastructure repairs, and charge consumers for the work, without getting PSC approval first.

"Part of the reason for talking about these priorities for the last seven months, and talking about them in November (after the elections)," Dempsey said, "was so that nobody is surprised by the priorities that I believe we need to have."

He noted the Senate Republican Caucus' 24 members agreed to the priorities in November -- and he even briefed Minority Leader Jolie Justus, D-Kansas City -- on the list, "so that everyone understands that we'd like to see progress on these issues."

The lawmakers' only constitutional duty each year is passing a budget -- by 6 p.m. May 10 -- for the state business year that begins July 1.

The Constitution requires the governor to present a budget plan during his annual "State of the State" address -- but the House is ordered to write the bills that eventually become the legal documents that state administrators work from.

The House still must debate and pass the measures, and then the Senate gets its chance to accept or rewrite those bills.

Part of the budget debate may focus on expanding Medicaid as envisioned by the federal Affordable Care Act. Gov. Jay Nixon supports the expansion as the "right thing to do" to help Missouri's low-income families and the economy -- but the Legislature's GOP leaders generally have rejected any such expansion.

Another reason for debating and voting on bills at a regular pace now, Richard said, is the regular end-of-session bottleneck rush to debate and pass measures that have been held until the last weeks, because agreements on them proved elusive.

"We don't want to have a bottleneck -- we want to get as much information out, and bills heard early, as possible," Richard said. "That 'funnel' that happens toward the end (of a legislative session) -- we're going to try to avoid that as best we can."

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