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Legislature returns for 2015 session

January 7, 2015 at 5:00 a.m. | Updated January 7, 2015 at 5:00 a.m.
Rep. Sandy Crawford enjoys the calm in her second floor Capitol office as she checks her email account Monday. The southern Missouri Republican and former House Whip said she is ready to get the 98th General Session underway Wednesday.

The state lawmakers are back in Jefferson City.

At noon today, the 98th session of the Missouri General Assembly begins in both the House and Senate.

All of the House of Representatives, and the 17 senators elected Nov. 4, will take their oaths of office.

Each chamber will elect its leadership, with the incoming House speaker and Senate president pro tem making speeches, and adopt temporary rules.

Each chamber also will first-read all the pre-filed bills proposing constitutional amendments, and new or revised laws.

Later, they will organize committees, establish permanent operating rules and start the long process of creating legislation.

"It is my first term, there is a level of excitement," freshman Rep. Travis Fitzwater, R-Holts Summit, said Tuesday. "It is very humbling. I am very honored.

"It is kind of surreal to be sitting in a Capitol office. As a freshman, I intend to learn as much as I can and help where I can with conservative legislation."

Fitzwater's goals include trying to increase government efficiency while lowering the tax burden on middle-income taxpayers.

He also intends to decrease regulations on businesses.

"Our government has to be there to help," Fitzwater said. "The desire is not to get rid of government completely, but the desire is to make a government that can help and not get in the way."

Fitzwater explained he wants to target regulations that hamper businesses.

His examples included a year-long wait to get permits allowing businesses to expand, and his personal experience with filling out large amounts of paperwork to prove a contractor was not an employee at his private business.

Fitzwater also promised to support legislation to raise the pay for state workers.

Third-term Rep. Mike Bernskoetter, R-Jefferson City, echoed the support for state employee pay raises.

"Typically, the raises are just part of the budget process," Bernskoetter said. "Of course, the main thing we always have to do is come up with a budget.

"Our only responsibility is the budget. We typically do more than that."

Last year, lawmakers budgeted a 1 percent state employee pay raise which took effect Jan. 1. Bernskoetter said it's "too soon to tell" if there will be enough money for a larger raise in the budget year, beginning July 1.

He said lawmakers likely will spend a lot of time talking about ethics reform and the events in Ferguson - but it is hard to guess what other issues will make it to the end of the session as proposed laws.

Bernskoetter said the majority of his time will be spent doing committee and constituent work.

"I think I am going to spend a lot of time on ethics reform," third-term Rep. Jay Barnes, R-Jefferson City, said.

"I am looking forward to getting started, getting to work and getting a new set of rules that will include ethics reforms right away."

Although ethics reform has had little support in recent years, Barnes said Tuesday: "I think there is some momentum to actually getting things accomplished with this new General Assembly, and I think it is important that Missourians have a more open government."

Barnes has pre-filed 11 bills, five of them proposing changes in the relationships between lobbyist and legislators.

His proposals are designed to cap gifts to lawmakers, set requirements for reporting gifts from lobbyist, and slow down a lawmaker's ability to become a lobbyist immediately after serving in the Legislature.

"The bills I sponsor are things I believe in," Barnes said. "I believe they will make our state better and I think those are important issues."

Senate Appropriations Chairman Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, said the bulk of his time again will be spent on budget issues.

"I put more time in that appropriations process and working with the committee members than any thing else I do on a weekly basis in the Legislature," he explained Tuesday. "The governor this year is still withholding about $700 million (in the current budget), even though the General Assembly last year appropriated money to things like domestic violence shelters, rape kits for kids and a lot of other things that we would like to see funded.

"So, I think there's going to be a lot of discussion about the budget, coming back to those things that we funded this year, that the governor would not fund, and making sure that those things get funded for the next year."

Unlike last year, Schaefer noted the House, Senate and governor's office have agreed on a consensus estimate for state revenues in the 2015-16 budget year - 3.6 percent, which is below both the Legislature's (4.2 percent) and the governor's (5.2 percent) predictions for general revenue growth in the current year.

Schaefer said they all agreed, last month, to a revised estimate of 4.6 percent for the last half of the current budget year.

"I would suspect that, by the time we end this year in June, we'll really be up quite a bit from that," he said.

Third-term Rep. Caleb Jones, R-Columbia; second-term Sen. Mike Kehoe, R-Jefferson City; and freshman Sen. Jeanie Riddle, R-Mokane, couldn't be reached to comment for this story.


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