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Senate launches session with 9 new members

Senate launches session with 9 new members

January 10th, 2019 by Bob Watson in News

In this Jan. 9, 2019 photo, Sens. Mike Bernskoetter, R-Jefferson City, and Jeanie Riddle, R-Mokane, repeat their oath of office during opening day ceremonies of the Missouri Legislature. Bernskoetter previously served in the House of Representatives and is in his first term as a senator. Riddle was elected in 2008.

Photo by Julie Smith /News Tribune.

After taking the oath of office along with all senators elected last November, freshman Mike Bernskoetter is one of nine new members of the Missouri Senate.

"The room's different," Bernskoetter, R-Jefferson City, said about his first day in the Senate after serving the last eight years in the House. "Being in that huge room, with less people, is different.

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"But, no, it doesn't feel any different so far."

As expected, senators elected Dave Schatz, R-Sullivan, as the chamber's new president pro tem.

In an eight-minute opening day message, Schatz said: "As I embark on the opportunity to serve each of you as pro tem, I am reminded of the lessons learned through decades of working in my family's small business.

"Our business is like thousands of others throughout this state — we work together to provide for our customers."

Likewise, in the state Senate, Schatz said, "Our success relies on our collegial relationships and deliberative debate. There will be many debates and many long nights in the coming months, but we should never lose sight that we were all called to this place in the name of public service."

Senate Minority Leader Gina Walsh, D-Bellefontaine Neighbors, told reporters she expects the 2019 legislative session "to be calmer and more focused" than last year, after former-Gov. Eric Greitens' resignation on June 1 and because "the people have spoken on right-to-work, Clean Missouri and the minimum wage. I think that we should respect the will of the people, moving forward."

Both in his speech, and in a news conference, Schatz said Senate Republicans will continue working for "great schools, good jobs and safe communities. We must work to reduce the burden of government by promoting reforms to our regulatory, our tort, and our tax systems to ensure Missouri can compete and win in the 21st century."

Schatz sponsored the 10-cent-per-gallon fuels tax hike voters rejected in November.

He told reporters the issue isn't going away.

"I think infrastructure is a priority for all of us to have a concern," he said. "I think we all understand the need for investment in infrastructure.

"I think there's some creative things that can be done out there, that we're going to have to explore and look at."

Senate Floor Leader Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, said lawmakers may be asked this year to modify Missouri's anti-trust law to help MU Health buy the SSM St. Mary's hospitals in Jefferson City and Mexico.

"We've had a lot of conversations about it," Rowden said. "I think both entities — SSM and MU Health — would prefer to have legislation that would clarify the anti-trust realities.

"It's a tough issue, and my view of it has been that we need to find the right outcome, because so far, MU is the only option, and I think the effort by some folks is to try and restart the process.

"I think we need to make sure that there are other entities interested, because what you don't want is that somehow this deal gets scuttled and SSM decides to just close St. Mary's."

Schatz said lawmakers likely will discuss some modifications to the just-passed Clean Missouri amendment to the Missouri Constitution.

"As elected officials, (I think) we have to make sure that what we're doing is not trying to undo the will of the voters," Schatz said, "but there are some dynamics there, and some changes that need to occur to make that more clear, and really get the voters what they thought they were voting for."

Rowden added: "I'm not questioning the intention of Clean Missouri — (but) I think it was very poorly written.

"I think we're going to have to make some changes to it that aren't necessarily designed to change the intent, but are designed to make it where it actually functionally does what the folks wanted it to do."

He said that could include the non-partisan demographer who is to oversee the every 10-year redistricting process — which Rowden said puts too much political power into one person's job — as well as making constituents' personal emails open records under the Sunshine Law.

Schatz said: "I won't go into the details, but I can tell you there have been multiple times when someone has communicated to us in a very sensitive nature on something that they did not want the public to share.

"This creates an opportunity for them to interact less with the Legislature, under that new requirement."

Walsh said she'd be open to a discussion of technical changes, but cautioned against a major re-write of a law voters just passed.

"I am tired — I've been here since 2003 (when she first was elected to the House)," Walsh noted, "and I've seen other efforts where the folks in charge up here think that they know better than what the will of the people has been mandated (in) an election.

"I think it would behoove us to listen to them."

After voters last August rejected a 2017 law that would have made Missouri a right-to-work state — where no one could be required to join a union or pay dues to a union as a condition of employment — Schatz said any proposals to return to that proposal are unlikely to be passed.

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"But every individual senator has the ability to file a bill, and it will go to a committee and work its way through the process," he explained. "We'll get public input and testimony."

Schatz is a supporter of what he called "Freedom to Work," and said that policy eventually should be the law in Missouri.

Still, he said, opponents last year "ran a very effective campaign" to block the 2017 law from going into effect.

Bernskoetter said he would continue looking for ways to help state employees.

"We continue to talk about how they're the lowest paid (on average in the nation), and we made a little adjustment last year (so) they're getting a $700 increase on Jan. 31 in their paycheck," he noted. "And the Corrections officers got a little bit more in their paycheck.

"Hopefully, we can continue that progress and get them a little more salary, a little more benefit — some kind of enhancement to their wages and benefits."

Bernskoetter also noted the state Senate has different rules to follow than the House and, like other representatives who've made the switch before him, Bernskoetter is going to have to un-learn some habits and learn new ones.

On Wednesday afternoon, Lt. Gov. Mike Kehoe stopped a reading of bills being introduced, to warn Bernskoetter he'd violated one of those rules.

"He warned me he was going to do that," Bernskoetter said. "I don't think I did anything wrong, but they did say you can't stand beside a senator (when talking with them at their desk).

"And I guess I was behind the senator — so that's what I was doing wrong."

As part of the Senate's tradition, many lawmakers introduced family and friends who had come to Jefferson City to witness the first day festivities.

While some traveled long distances to get to the Capitol, Bernskoetter quipped his guests "didn't have to travel very far."