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Lawmakers prepare for final weeks of session

March 27, 2016 at 5:01 a.m. | Updated January 1, 2021 at 12:00 a.m.

As Missouri lawmakers return from their annual Spring Break on Tuesday, they will have just seven weeks left in the session.

Missouri's Constitution says the General Assembly must end its work this year at 6 p.m. May 13.

Leaders in both houses said before the break started last week that the first 11 weeks generally were successful.

Rep. Travis Fitzwater, R-Holts Summit, noted the House has kept its promise on passing ethics reform.

And Senate Floor Leader Mike Kehoe, R-Jefferson City, agreed those measures remain important for many lawmakers.

"We've worked through three or four ethics bills (already)," he told reporters before the spring break began. "I think out of the six or seven (ethics) bills the House had, we've heard three or four of them - and three of them seem like they're moving pretty well."

Lawmakers have debated restrictions on when General Assembly members can become lobbyists, what kinds of gifts they can receive from lobbyists and whether they can have lobbyist-paid meals.

"We should continue to pass ethics legislation that has teeth, isn't watered down, and significantly changes the culture in Jefferson City," Fitzwater told the News Tribune.

Opponents have complained no measure limiting campaign donations has any chance of being passed this year.

One of the ethics bills limits the ways campaign funds can be used after a lawmaker leaves office. Sponsored by Rep. Jay Barnes, R-Jefferson City, and handled in the Senate by Kehoe, it appears to be headed for a conference committee negotiation over differing language passed by the House and Senate.

Rep. David Wood, R-Versailles, is focused on economic issues and will continue supporting bills that "remove burdensome government regulations and encourages free market solutions."

Wood also wants to emphasize education improvements providing career readiness, STEM curriculum, as well as modern education for state residents and young minds. He wants "to ensure we have the kind of workforce that our global economy demands."

Fitzwater also said the state must change the energy regulatory environment in order to invest in its energy infrastructure.

"That may be the best jobs program we can come up with, and it will stabilize energy price increases while allowing energy companies to more aggressively invest in infrastructure updates," he said.

Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard agreed.

"My goal is to have some kind of an infrastructure plan, at least to get it out to the floor of the Senate and debate it - water, gas and electric," the Joplin Republican explained. "Whether that happens in this session, I don't know."

Passing the state budget for the business year beginning July 1 is the Legislature's only required duty - and the task must be done by 6 p.m. May 6.

The House sent its version of the budget to the Senate a couple weeks ago.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, told reporters his committee will begin working Tuesday morning on the Senate's version of the more than $26 billion state budget - including a raise for state employees.

Schaefer expects the full Senate to debate the committee's recommendations before mid-April.

Among other bills area Republican lawmakers are pushing are a requirement voters show a specified form of photo identification when they go to vote at their local polling places, more restrictions on a woman's ability to get an abortion and a proposal for a small increase in the state's tax on motor fuels so the Transportation department can maintain what it has and do some new construction.

Missouri has the nation's seventh largest road system and ranks sixth in the number of bridges it maintains.

"At some point in time, I do believe that Missourians will have to look at some sort of investment in transportation," said Kehoe, a former chairman of the Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission. He emphasized a need to fix the gap between money available for construction and maintenance programs and the existing needs.

Lawmakers can raise the fuels tax a small amount without requiring voters to agree. But the 1980s voter-approved Hancock Amendment to the Constitution requires a statewide vote for any substantial tax increase.

"Most Missourians agree there's a problem, and most Missourians overwhelmingly agree we have a shortfall in construction funding," Kehoe said. "The disagreement has been in how do we fix that?"

Senate leaders know from the past two years' experience that a proposed tax increase will generate opposition from several conservatives who oppose any tax increases on Missourians.

The Senate this year already set a filibuster record - nearly 40 hours without adjourning -debating a "religious liberty" bill that would prohibit the state from punishing religious organizations or businesses that refuse to be part of a same-sex wedding or celebration.

That proposed constitutional amendment now is in the House.

While some predict it could face stronger opposition than expected, Fitzwater said it likely will receive House approval, sending it to a statewide vote.

Still, Fitzwater acknowledged, there's "no good way" to predict what bills will pass or fail before the end of this session.


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