Taxes, criminal code top list of priorities

Missouri lawmakers return Monday from spring break

Only eight weeks to go.

When Missouri lawmakers return to Jefferson City Monday after their spring break, they have eight weeks until the Constitution says they must finish their work for this session.

And, while leaders say things went well the first 10 weeks, they have a lot work to do yet.

At the top of the list are measures to reduce taxes and rewrite the criminal code.

“There continues to be, I guess, different philosophies on the best way to pursue a (tax cuts) bill and, actually, get something accomplished,” Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey, R-St. Charles, told reporters March 13, as lawmakers headed out of Jefferson City for their week-long break. “We’re pursuing our tax policy to help people at home take care of their families, and we’re also doing it to address our competition with other states.

“We will continue to work on that bill, and I’m hopeful we’ll be able to move forward quickly after our break.”

Reducing income taxes has been a Republican legislative priority for several years, either for businesses, individuals or both.

Last year, both houses passed a bill that Gov. Jay Nixon vetoed, saying its premise was “based on unproven assumptions, careless drafting and an utter disregard for long-term consequences.”

The Senate had more than enough votes to override the veto — but the House fell 15 votes short during last September’s veto session.

And that “failure,” as many Republicans see it, has resulted in two different ways to approach tax cuts this year.

“Sen. (Will) Kraus (R-Lee’s Summit) is working on an effort — coupling it with tax credit reform on programs where we have attempted to get reforms over the last several years — and to couple that with a tax cut,” Dempsey noted. “I’d like to see us pass a tax cut that is more than a tax cut in name only, and to put that on the governor’s desk — to try that first.

“If that fails, we (still) could pass a bill where — if the governor vetoes it — we could still consider it before the end of session, and we could always have a fallback position if we’re not successful in going back and doing it Sen. Kraus’ way.”

Overriding another Nixon veto — if there were one — still is a viable option this year, Dempsey noted, “because the House has sent a different message this year. Last year, they said, ‘There’s 15 people here who don’t support this plan.’

“This year, they said their message is, ‘We’ve got everybody on board.’”

Senators spent much of their week before break talking about the 1,100-page bill that rearranges the state’s criminal laws into a new criminal code that the prosecutors and defense lawyers who studied it and suggested the changes say will work better and more fairly than the current code.

“We’ve begun the debate early enough,” Dempsey said 10 days ago, “where we can allow plenty of time for people to look at it, allow legislators to continue to look at it, put a substitute forward, discuss that thoroughly and still move a bill by, let’s say, the first week of April.

“(That means) there would be plenty of time for the House to consider the bill.”

Attorney General Chris Koster said he and his staff were reviewing the proposal during the lawmakers’ spring break, and would make comments on it after lawmakers return this week.

Gov. Jay Nixon said the criminal code changes are important — but he would prefer to have the changes proposed in smaller segments.

Supporters have said the proposal includes a new class of crimes, with many of them coming from other parts of the existing laws.

Passing the rewrite requires all the changes to be made at the same time, or there’s likely to be more confusion, the supporters argue.

Dempsey supports the proposal, and said he thinks there’s enough time to get the differences worked out before the May 16 session deadline.

Some lawmakers want changes in Missouri’s death penalty laws, as well.

Those proposals are not part of the criminal code changes, which intentionally don’t tackle controversial issues.

“I’ve not had a problem supporting looking at the death penalty,” Dempsey said. “I support the death penalty.

“But where there’s any government involvement — I don’t have a problem looking at and reviewing our policies.”

Dempsey noted the Senate already has sent a number of bills to the House for its consideration, including better funding for colleges and universities, based partly on their performance and students’ successes; new rules for letting students in unaccredited schools switch to schools with better success, while staying in, or as close to, their homes as possible; and changes to unemployment law, so that employees fired for valid reasons have a much harder time getting unemployment benefits.

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