With veto-proof majorities in both the Missouri House and Senate, the Legislature's Republican leaders expect a lot of support for their agenda in the 2015 General Assembly that began at noon Wednesday.
The House on Wednesday elected Rep. John Diehl, R-Town and Country, as the new speaker, succeeding Eureka Republican Tim Jones, who was term-limited.
"I thank all my colleagues, and the people of Missouri, for the privilege of holding this gavel," Diehl said in his speech to the House. "I pledge to do all that I can to keep business moving along in the right direction. ... If six years around this Capitol have taught me anything, it's that a little good will and trust can go a long way."
Diehl noted his distrust of an "ever-expanding public sector" and his "faith in the private sector," and said he wants everyone to feel empowered, have a chance at a quality education, and the opportunity to get ahead.
Diehl later told reporters the main House goals for this session are to create a fiscally responsible budget and reduce bureaucratic red tape for small businesses.
"This will require us to further strengthen Missouri's business climate and to provide advanced workforce development opportunities in order to prepare Missouri and its citizens for the economy of the future," Diehl said.
State senators unanimously re-elected Tom Dempsey, R-St. Charles, as president pro tem.
In his 17-minute address, Dempsey agreed economic development will remain a key goal this year.
"Missouri's economy ranks among the most diverse in the United States," he said. "We will rely on the existing strengths of our versatile state and build for a greater economic revival by looking at what lies ahead in our ever-changing global marketplace."
Dempsey said lawmakers would act quickly on an agriculture bill passed last year, but vetoed by Gov. Jay Nixon because it moved the regulation of captive deer from the Conservation department to the Agriculture department.
He pledged to address education issues as well as changes in law enforcement and municipal court operations in the wake of the protests, demonstrations and riots in Ferguson after teenager Michael Brown was killed by police officer Darren Wilson on Aug. 9.
Sen. Mike Kehoe, R-Jefferson City, said he and other Senate Republicans support the priorities Dempsey listed.
"We have a manufacturer resurgence happening here in the state of Missouri," Kehoe told the News Tribune, "so what we can do to make the existing manufacturers feel more comfortable in the state, and what we can do to attract additional, new manufacturers" are important topics to be discussed.
He also agreed better funding for Missouri public schools will be a big issue.
Freshman Sen. Jeanie Riddle, R-Mokane, said Dempsey was "spot on on some of the education issues that we're facing in this state.
"In talking with some of the business owners around the state, we are missing a segment of our workforce, as well," the former teacher continued. "We need to make sure that we are talking to the high schools and junior colleges and higher education, to make sure that we are hiring Missourians, and that Missourians stay in Missouri."
Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, is entering his last two years as a lawmaker.
"I think there are a lot of contentious issues that we have to deal with," he said, noting Dempsey's "even-keeled" approach to lawmakers of both parties should help the Senate wade through the controversies as smoothly as possible.
Diehl told reporters he wants to use the committee process to do most of the "heavy lifting" on proposed laws, and he will ask his committee chairs to draft small, single-subject bills to move them faster through the House in the session's early weeks.
While lawmakers will debate Ferguson-related issues, Diehl said, "We are not going to have a Ferguson agenda here in the House. I view the situation of Ferguson as really a reflection of decades of bad government policy.
"Whether it be in the entitlement area, failed education systems or a lack of economic opportunity ... I don't see us being eager to throw money at a problem and declare mission accomplished."
Both Diehl and Dempsey said Republicans remain reluctant to expand Medicaid as envisioned in the federal Affordable Care Act.
House Minority Leader Jake Hummel, D-St. Louis, said Democrats will continue to push for Medicaid expansion, social justice and economic issues.
He said the House Democrats soon will be introducing bills to address their priority issues.
"Our state can no longer afford to stick its head in the sand and pretend that the real problems dealing with racial injustice no longer exist," Hummel said. "Sweeping changes need to be made to begin to write some of the institutional injustice that has lead to a system that hurts those at the bottom of the economic spectrum."