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Area lawmakers pleased with outcome of session

Area lawmakers pleased with outcome of session

May 20th, 2018 by Bob Watson and Joe Gamm in Local News

Rep. Mike Bernskoetter, R-Jefferson City, discusses legislation Friday on the final day of the 99th General Assembly. Bernskoetter, who is term-limited in the House, is running for Mike Kehoe's Senate seat. Kehoe is also prohibited from running again due to term limits.

Photo by Tim Bommel/Mo. House of Reps.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story was modified at 12:15 p.m. Sunday, May 20, to correct a paragraph about some of the effects of a bill affecting electric utilities, their rates and improvements to the electricity distribution "grid."

The original story was inaccurate about what the bill would do.

Mid-Missouri lawmakers generally were pleased with the 2018 General Assembly, which ended its regular session Friday.

"Really, the entire session, we had a common cause," Sen. Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, told the News Tribune, "and that was, there was a job to do and we were going to do it."

Sen. Jeanie Riddle, R-Mokane, who's in her fourth year in the Senate, after serving six years in the House, added: "Even under the cloud of what's going on with the executive branch of the government — the Senate and the House worked together better than I've ever seen it."

Rowden agreed that complaints Gov. Eric Greitens has possibly been involved in criminal activity have been a distraction for lawmakers, but "I think it probably brought us together in a way that maybe we wouldn't have been otherwise. The leadership on both sides just really stepped up in a way that should be remembered by anybody who witnessed it."

Lawmakers this year introduced a total of 2,068 bills — 558 in the Senate and 1,510 in the House.

As usual, that count includes multiple proposals on the same or similar topics and a number of times when the same language was introduced in both chambers.

The Legislature passed 144 bills — including the nearly 20 separate measures that make up the state's annual budget.

The governor already has signed a few measures, and the rest eventually will be sent to him for his signature or veto.

"As you know, there are a lot of distractions going on in the political realm," Senate Majority Leader Mike Kehoe, R-Jefferson City, said. "I was really proud of Senate members from both sides of the aisle, as well as our relationship with the House, to work through that and do some really good things for Missouri."

Both Kehoe and Rowden pointed to the budget's financial support for higher education — even though Greitens last January proposed cutting $68 million from the amounts spent on the schools' budgets last year.

"State Technical College in Linn not only had an increase in funding to kind of even them up with some of the other community colleges," Kehoe said, "but they're also (getting) a new facility out there, which I think is a good thing.

"And Lincoln University's being able to put more money into the land grant match opportunity was fantastic for them."

He added the "whole higher ed funding piece that we were able to restore, I think, was good for all of our universities."

While Rowden was pleased "getting University of Missouri and higher ed funding back to square was a win this year," he said he doesn't want that to be an annual goal.

"I think we need to work on making sure that we're investing in our two-year and four-year institutions," he explained, "and hopefully, we can move that a little bit more this next year."

Riddle noted the Legislature this year "passed legislation that will truly help families in this state and the businesses in this state," including — "whether it's tax changes in the code, workforce development projects, looking out after our foster kids — those kids who are truly in need of help."

State Rep. Mike Bernskoetter, R-Jefferson City, noted lawmakers this year "passed a lot of the things we've been wanting to pass for years," including "tax relief for families, corporate tax reform (and) the grid modernization."

That last is part of a controversial bill with a number of provisions, including one that gives Missouri's regulated electric utilities, including Ameren Missouri, the right to ask the Missouri Public Service Commission for permission to adjust rates periodically, based on changes in customer usage due to weather and conservation — a right that Missouri natural gas corporations already have.

And it allows a public utility to build an energy generation unit that has a capacity of 1 MW or less, without getting PSC approval first, which is a change from the current law.

Some lawmakers, like Sen. Doug Libla, R-Poplar Bluff, complained the bill would weaken the PSC's ability to regulate monopoly utilities, while Senate sponsor Ed Emery, R-Lamar, said none of the commission's "authority was affected" by the bill.

Bernskoetter also is proud of a bill passed Friday that, if signed into law, will require all nursing homes and similar facilities to report suspected abuse or neglect of residents to local police. Currently, a report is only required to be filed with the Department of Health and Senior Services.

Bernskoetter and Rowden both talked about success in efforts to expand broadband services in rural areas, and Rowden also was pleased with the passage of a bill that, he and other supporters said, would help launch the next generation of cell service throughout the state.

Kehoe and Rowden said they hope the Legislature will do more with tort reform next, making civil lawsuits more fair for businesses and less attractive to out-of-state plaintiffs who think Missouri courts provide easier ways to win.

Kehoe, who served on the Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission a decade ago, was pleased lawmakers passed a four-year, phased-in 10-cents-a-gallon fuel tax increase proposal which also will provide dedicated funding to the Highway Patrol.

The Legislature placed that plan on the November ballot for voters' final approval.

"In my eight years here," Kehoe said, "I was glad to see that opportunity come.

"Missourians will have a chance to decide, and I think that's what they want to do."

He noted the proposal followed last year's work by a special commission of lawmakers, business people and stakeholders that held hearings throughout the state, seeking comments about the condition of the state's transportation system as well as suggestions for maintaining and improving it.

State Rep. Jay Barnes, R-Jefferson City, has spent most of his final year in the House concentrating on his role as chairman of the Special Investigative Committee on Oversight, which Speaker Todd Richardson formed in late-February, after a St. Louis grand jury indicted Greitens on a felony invasion of privacy charge for an incident in March 2015 — before the governor had formally launched his campaign for the office.

Hours before the trial in that case was supposed to begin last Tuesday, St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner dismissed the charge — saying she couldn't continue the case after Judge Rex Burlison said Greitens' attorneys could call Gardner as a defense witness.

She hopes another attorney in her office, or a special prosecutor appointed by the court, will refile the case — and her actions didn't stop a second felony case her office filed against Greitens a month ago, charging him with taking donor and email lists belonging to The Mission Continues, a veterans service charity the governor helped found in 2007, and using that information to raise about $2 million during the early days of his campaign for the governor's office.

Greitens has argued both cases are politically motivated by people who don't want him to succeed at reforming state government, and that he's committed no crimes.

The special House committee has issued two major reports detailing the governor's role in each incident — reports the governor and others have said are one-sided because his views weren't included.

Barnes has noted Greitens was invited to appear before the committee but hasn't done so yet.

Barnes has declined to be interviewed about the committee's work or about his last year's work in the Legislature.

But in a Friday afternoon speech to the House about his eight years of work, Barnes said: "This session has not worked out like any of us planned. The members of the committee on which I serve were given a great task for which we did not ask when this session started."

The committee's work will be the main focus of the early days of the 30-day special session that began at 6:30 p.m. Friday.

For the first time in history, lawmakers called themselves into a special session, to consider the possibility of impeaching the governor — if that's what the seven-member special committee recommends.

The panel has two meetings scheduled for this week so far — 11 a.m. Tuesday and 9 a.m. Wednesday.

"We have done our best so far, and we will continue to do our best for this body and for the state," Barnes said.