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Mid-Missouri lawmakers look back at 2019 session

by Joe Gamm | May 19, 2019 at 2:54 a.m. | Updated May 19, 2019 at 10:54 a.m.
Members of the Missouri House of Representatives toss papers Friday at the conclusion of the 100th General Assembly.

State lawmakers from Mid-Missouri have a wide range of experience in the General Assembly.

Three area House members - Reps. Tom Hurst, R-Meta, Rocky Miller, R-Lake Ozark, and David Wood, R-Versailles - just completed the first year of their final sessions.

Four others - Sen. Mike Bernskoetter, R-Jefferson City, and Reps. Dave Griffith, R-Jefferson City, Rudy Veit, R-Wardsville, and Aaron Griesheimer, R-Washington - just finished their first session of their first term.

Sen. Jeanie Riddle, R-Mokane, is in her fifth year in the Senate, while Sen. Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, is in his third year but also just completed his first year as the Senate's floor leader.

Rocky Miller

"It was a fantastic session," Miller said. "We got things done for business. We got things done for health. We got some things done for safety."

On a personal level, he said he was happy to get a few things done that he's been supporting for several years.

The legislature has expanded background checks for teachers, making classrooms safer for children, he said.

It modified start dates for schools - expanding the time when school districts can begin holding classes to no more than 14 days before Labor Day - an expansion from the previous rule that was 10 days before the holiday.

The expansion is possible because Missouri has changed how it calculates how much time students spend in school - going from the number of days to the number of hours, Miller said. That change, approved last year, removed the requirement that students attend classes on 174 days. The requirement for hours (which hasn't changed) is that students are to be in school settings for 1,044 hours for a school year.

Sara Walsh

Rep. Sara Walsh, R-Ashland, just finished her second full year in the House, but told the News Tribune she almost felt like a freshman lawmaker this year.

She did the state tour with this year's freshmen before the session began - because she took office after a special election in 2017 and served during the second year of the 99th Missouri General Assembly.

Walsh sponsored two bills this year.

One - the Back the Blue license plate bill - passed outright. The other extends the expiration date for the DNA fund - which operates the crime lab providing services for more than 600 law enforcement agencies - was included in a small law enforcement omnibus bill.

"Back the Blue gives everyone an opportunity to show their support for law enforcement," Walsh said.

Having connections with the law enforcement community helped in her role as chairwoman for the House Subcommittee on Appropriations - Public Safety, Corrections, Transportation and Revenue.

"This was my first year on Appropriations," Walsh said. "Working on those issues was a great honor."

She said she promised constituents she would support a pro-life stance.

The General Assembly may not have passed a huge number of bills, Walsh said, but the ones they did pass were "substantive."

House colleagues recognized freshman Reps. Griffith and Veit for their work on specific issues.

Dave Griffith

Griffith worked all year long to get his bill expanding veterans courts passed. Late Friday afternoon, with about two hours left in the session, that legislation looked like it was stuck - the Senate had passed a modified version of the bill, so the House needed to consider it again.

But, House members quickly moved the bill to the floor and it went through - one of the last three measures passed during the session.

Those first five-and-a-half months were nerve-wracking.

"There were surprises I had along the way," Griffith said. "I had expectations of what I wanted to see.

"My eyes were wide open."

Even if it hadn't passed, the bill had played a role in raising awareness about veterans' issues, he said.

Another bill he sponsored was intended to create a "Capitol Complex Fund," which would receive donations and use them to rehabilitate five of the historic buildings around, and including, the Capitol.

The Missouri House did one thing that caught Griffith off guard, he said. It passed a proposed constitutional amendment that would erase parts of 2018's Amendment 1 (Clean Missouri), which voters adopted in November.

"The Clean Missouri thing surprised me. I didn't think that would come back up," Griffith said. "I was surprised it passed out of this House."

Griffith voted against it.

Rudy Veit

Veit had an opinion or two to share concerning his first year in the General Assembly.

"I certainly thought it may be a little more efficient than it was," Veit said.

Trying to get things done for the state's infrastructure was frustrating, he said.

Legislators say they are required to balance the budget (although the Missouri Constitution puts the final burden of balancing the budget on the governor, before the state business year ends on June 30) - but lawmakers also say they don't want to pass debt down to their children.

That may force lawmakers to do things they may not want, Veit said.

"As unpopular as it is, I would support a 2-cents (a gallon) gas tax, as long as it is only used for roads," Veit said. "People have to start thinking about it. We need to come up with a solution, even if we're going to take political heat for it."

All in all, the first year was a great experience, he said.

"You really have to get knowledgeable about the rules," Veit said.

And, he learned that there are processes involved. A lot of the work is done lawmaker-to-lawmaker, before legislation hits the floor, Veit said.

The House tackled issues that were large and small.

"The abortion issue was the most draining and stressful thing to have to address," he offered. "There were emotional stories on both sides. The bill, on the whole, was something we had to have. I had to vote my conscience."

Veit said he's looking forward to returning in 2020.

"I think I've only missed one vote," he said as he bopped back and forth between his desk on the House floor and a wing, while bills began to pass through the chamber late Friday afternoon. "I was talking (to someone)."

Travis Fitzwater

Rep. Travis Fitzwater, R-Holts Summit, just finished his fifth year in the Legislature.

He said last week he was pleased the budget bills sent to the governor this month included pay raises for state employees.

"That has been one of my biggest priorities in the last couple of years," he told the News Tribune. "It's a 3 percent raise for all state employees.

"On top of that, Department of Corrections employees are taken care of really well."

He also called the bridge bonding plan "a significant path forward on rebuilding our bridges," and said using $50 million in general revenue money to address 35 of the total 251 bridges in the plan "a smart way to do it, without going into too much debt."

And, he said, passing Gov. Mike Parson's workforce development bill "could be a huge deal for our state."

Mike Bernskoetter

After eight years in the House, Bernskoetter was learning how the Senate works differently - and more deliberately - than the House.

"They work a little slower over on this side of the building than they do (in the House)," he said.

Bernskoetter also was pleased the budget has "a 3 percent (across-the-board) increase for state employees" and increased core funding for both Lincoln University and State Technical College in Linn.

Bernskoetter sponsored the health ordinance bill that will prohibit county commissions or health boards from passing health ordinances involving confined animal feeding operations, known as CAFOs, from being more stringent than state regulations.

And he was pleased lawmakers created the Rock Island Trail Fund to help convert the old Rock Island Railroad line to another trail, like the Katy Trail State Park.

Like Griffith, Bernskoetter was disappointed the Capitol Complex Fund bill didn't pass - but he promised to file a new bill next year.

Jeanie Riddle

"I think we accomplished a lot this session," Riddle told the News Tribune, including the bonding bill for bridge repairs, the workforce development bill that includes incentives for General Motors to upgrade its Wentzville plant, tort reform and the "very contentious" pro-life bill.

"The yeoman's work on that (abortion bill) from both sides" was proof that the Senate can work to get things done, she said.

"My colleagues in this Senate, from both parties, work well together - and we try very hard to represent our districts," Riddle added.

She also pointed to her own success in getting colleagues to approve a sex trafficking bill that originated in the House, but also included a number of other measures "to help our most vulnerable kids in the state."

Riddle's biggest disappointment was "the loss of time that we had, due to filibustering. It seems like the filibuster has become acceptable with some people as common place."

Still, she said: "We are known for free and fair debate," and that includes efforts by senators to block bills they don't agree with.

Caleb Rowden

The Columbia Republican called the 2019 session "productive."

"It struck the right balance of the big and small stuff, so I think everybody walks away pretty happy," Rowden told the News Tribune.

"I think the (bridge) bonding proposal was important - obviously for the Rocheport bridge" on Interstate 70, between Columbia and Boonville.

He was disappointed the Legislature didn't pass a statewide prescription drug monitoring program - even though some fellow Republicans are concerned such a program would violate Missourians' privacy rights.

Senate Republicans last November chose Rowden to be the floor leader - the senator who controls when bills are called up for debate and, to some extent, how much debate time will be allowed.

"I didn't really realize the extent to which being the floor leader, you have your own priorities - but you also don't.

"And I think that becomes more highlighted toward the end of session."

He said his goal was "to try to clear a path for as many things as possible."

Rowden's predecessor in the job was now-Lt. Gov. Mike Kehoe, R-Jefferson City.

"He's been good," Rowden said. "He's been very helpful, and I've always welcomed his advice.

"We've had a good, ongoing dialog."


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