Missouri lawmakers anticipate a fast start for the upcoming legislative session.
Some have gotten off to an early start.
Still, it's expected to be a typical session with lawmakers scrambling to bring their pet projects in on time.
An autumn of discord concerning the Missouri Department of Social Services capped years of dysfunction within the department and led to the resignation of its interim director (Jennifer Tidball was the acting director for two years). Lawmakers said they're concerned a federal watchdog determined the state agency lost track of almost 1,000 foster children.
Senate and House members said they're saddled with the burden for funding Medicaid expansion in Missouri. They will be called upon to approve or change proposed legislative district maps. Some have filed - or intend to file - legislation they said will protect Missouri's elections.
And, they are poised to file legislation should the U.S. Supreme Court modify Roe v. Wade, which appears to be imminent.
Majority party leaders have indicated committees will be asked to begin accepting arguments for legislation soon after the Jan. 5 start of the Second Regular Session of the 101st General Assembly. Leadership will likely ask lawmakers to stay in Jefferson City to hear arguments on Fridays.
It has become a tradition for them to leave Jefferson City and head for their homes across the state at noon Thursdays.
Not a typical year
As a fourth-year member of the House, Rep. Dave Griffith, R-Jefferson City, said he should have a pretty good idea of what to expect in the Capitol during January - a settling-in period. Members take time to re-acquaint themselves with each other and study issues.
But, this year is a little different, with decisions on redistricting and possibly Medicaid funding questions looming early. By Friday, he'd pre-filed six bills and had several more to go.
Rudy Veit, a Republican from Wardsville, is also working hard earlier this year. He'd pre-filed eight bills by Friday and was spending free time helping other lawmakers perfect their bills, so they might not face legal challenges.
By the end of business Friday, House members had filed 355 bills and 24 joint resolutions, which require votes from the public and are necessary to change the state Constitution.
Senators had filed 331 bills and 16 joint resolutions.
Sen. Mike Bernskoetter, R-Jefferson City, is chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Redistricting, which he said would likely take up most of his focus at the start of the session.
The committee, along with its counterpart in the state House, is responsible for drafting U.S. congressional district lines with 2020 census numbers. That data, however, was delayed in getting to states because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Gov. Mike Parson didn't call a special session on redistricting during the summer, so Bernskoetter said there will be a rush to get it complete when the session starts.
Bernskoetter has already pre-filed the bill to change the districts.
The committee's maps have to be voted on and approved like any other legislation, which Bernskoetter said could be the cause of some delays.
"There's usually stuff that comes up that you're not even expecting," he said. "But hopefully we can come to a map that we can agree on and get it taken care of."
As a result, he's also pre-filed legislation to push the 2022 primary election candidate filing deadline from the last Tuesday in March to the first Tuesday in April.
"It won't be easy to get it done by the filing date, but if everything goes smoothly, it could happen," Bernskoetter said.
He, Griffith and others anticipate there will be a lot of discussion as the issue of redistricting arises.
Veit said he's not concerned about his own state district, or generally any of the state districts. His concern, he said, lies with federal redistricting.
Unlike federal districts, state districts will be drawn by independent bipartisan citizen commissions. Missouri voters approved in 2018 a change in state districting by transferring responsibility for drawing state legislative districts from the nonpartisan state demographer to governor-appointed bipartisan commissions.
He doesn't want lawmakers to spend the entire session arguing about that, Veit said.
However, Rep. Willard Haley, R-Eldon, a second-year lawmaker, lives on the edge of his state district (District 58), which includes all of Morgan County and small portions of Miller and Moniteau counties, and says possible changes concern him.
"I realize the new line could be drawn, separating these counties," Haley said. He added we just have to wait and see what changes redistricting creates.
As of Friday afternoon, Bernskoetter has pre-filed 13 bills tackling a variety of issues.
Bills come due
Some have a common thread, such as the bill to remove the Department of Agriculture's oversight of anhydrous ammonia standards and the bill to expand the definition of what the state considers a "small farmer."
Bernskoetter, who serves as chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Food Production and Outdoor Resources and on the Joint Committee on Agriculture, said a lot of agriculture legislation didn't get done last year and will be brought up again this year.
He said he'd like to pass agricultural tax credits early in the session as well to help young farmers be more confident when investing in the industry.
"I'll be busy the first couple months of session with trying to get the congressional districts done and see if we can't get the agriculture stuff done that didn't get done last year," he said.
Bernskoetter said he expects there will be a lot of discussion among lawmakers about how the state handled the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as what to do with education and how to involve parents in decision making.
Bernskoetter said education has been a hot topic among his constituents.
"There's a lot of issues about education and what's going on with the kids and what's going on in the schools and that kind of thing, so mostly that's what I've been hearing from my constituents," he said.
Bernskoetter said redistricting and the agriculture legislation are his main priorities, but he's also been working on legislation with members of the House, such as Veit.
Bernskoetter pre-filed legislation to expand the definition of what it means to tamper with electronic monitoring equipment and legislation to remove the term "summer camps" from state statutes and replace it with "day camps."
Those pre-filed pieces of legislation resemble some of the bills Veit is introducing in the House. By introducing the topics in both chambers, they hope it has a better chance of getting across the finish line.
Bernskoetter has also pre-filed bills to reduce fees businesses pay for filing documents with the Secretary of State's Office and add new fees, require businesses to pay an annual unemployment automation adjustment, and base state unemployment pay on the average unemployment rate.
Critical Race Theory
Willard said he had not yet pre-filed any legislation, but intended to soon.
"One bill's purpose will be to ensure Critical Race Theory terminology and ideals are not addressed on any school assessments in our state," Haley said. "Another bill will propose the legalization of professional bare-knuckle fighting."
Haley said he has a constituent in his district that is nationally a highly-ranked bare knuckles fighter, but can't compete within Missouri.
That's hard to argue with.
Rep. Travis Fitzwater, R-Holts Summit, said Critical Race Theory should not be taught in schools.
"The Legislature should ban the teaching of CRT to our children," Fitzwater said.
Veit said he anticipates a number of House members filing bills concerning Critical Race Theory.
"The more I read about it, the more concern I have," he continued.
Being a member of a particular race doesn't entitle a person to something, he said. Nor does it mean someone else is evil.
Additional pre-filed legislation Bernskoetter has offered makes minors serving at least 15 years for second-degree murder ineligible for parole and makes it unlawful for individuals found guilty of possessing child pornography to visit public parks with playgrounds, public swimming pools and athletic fields primarily used by children.
The legislation restricting access to certain areas for people found possessing child pornography resembles a bill Fitzwater pre-filed.
Fitzwater has pre-filed one other piece of legislation ahead of the upcoming session, which seeks to reduce taxes on new businesses during their first four years of operation, award 5 percent of all state contracts to businesses less than five years old and create the Office of Entrepreneurship within the Missouri Department of Economic Development.
The new office would promote policies and initiatives supporting entrepreneurship and work with stakeholders and communities to provide information and technical support to entrepreneurs.
"Any bill I file is a priority issue for me," Fitzwater said. "These two bills represent two important issues for me; protecting children from sexual predators and making the economic environment in the state of Missouri conducive to startup activity and entrepreneurial risk taking."
Fitzwater, who is in his final session because of term limits, said he'll spend the session working on campaign promises he made when running in 2014, like protecting life and citizens' rights while growing economic opportunities around the state.
Department of Social Services
Griffith has filed House Bill 1563, which if passed would require agencies looking for family members of potential foster children to redouble their efforts.
The Children's Division of DSS is understaffed and over worked, Griffith acknowledges. So legislators need to give the agency the tools to better serve children.
The division searches for family members to take in children whom it has removed from their homes.
"Once they find one relative that they can place the children with, then they stop," Griffith said. "I'm asking that they do 50 times what they're doing now to find those family members to place them, rather than putting them with someone they don't know.
"Will it be a burden? Yes. But, we have to do what's right."