A month ahead of the 2023 legislative session, lawmakers representing the Capital City and surrounding areas are already gearing up to have their top priorities heard.
Lawmakers in both chambers were able to pre-file legislation Thursday, giving their priority bills a chance to gain momentum by being ready to move when the General Assembly gavels in on Jan. 4. The opening day of pre-filing saw more than 320 bills and 23 resolutions filed in the House, while the Senate filed 331 and 29 joint resolutions by Friday morning.
The wide swath of bills filed by local lawmakers so far cover everything from the legal system and state employees to education and business, with plenty of unfinished business set to be addressed in the upcoming session.
Wardsville Republican Rep. Rudy Veit's top priority is eliminating a "grave mistake" he said lawmakers made at the 11th hour last session.
The General Assembly pushed through a 58-page elections bill at the end of last year's session that made drastic changes to Missouri's election system, including the addition of voter ID requirements and the elimination of the state's presidential primary.
Veit filed a bill -- HB 347 -- which would reinstate the primary, noting that other lawmakers had also taken notice of the change. He said it was a mistake he hoped would be addressed this session, whether it's through his own legislation or someone else's.
"We all have the right to participate in a presidential primary to the extent possible, and it doesn't do any good or any great thing to have the right to vote if you don't have the proper opportunities and the candidates you want on the ballot," Veit said. "I feel very strongly about the primary, and others in the party do, too. Even if someone else ends up filing it, I might file it myself to give it another chance."
Veit filed 10 bills Thursday, most of which deal with the legal profession. Veit, who has spent decades as a lawyer, said those bills would reform alternative resolutions for legal disputes, depositions and discovery across state lines, extend the expiration deadline for statutes governing court automation and increase pay for jurors to $50 daily beginning the third day they serve and 7 cents for every mile driven to the courthouse.
Another bill pre-filed by Veit would benefit retired state employees, many of whom are his constituents. He said the bill would set retirement eligibility for state employees when their age and years of credited service reach 80.
Rep. Dave Griffith, R-Jefferson City, has pre-filed eight bills.
Each is a bill that lawmakers considered to some extent in previous sessions.
Five deal with military or veterans' issues, Griffith said. Two deal with state employees. One (dealing with tort actions) was made at the request of a constituent.
"All of these bills are ones that didn't cross the finish line last year," he said. "Last year was unusual. Not one single veterans bill got passed."
One bill had reached the Senate floor, and was awaiting final approval, but the Senate opened up discussions about congressional maps. And the Conservative Caucus, which had said the maps were the last thing it would do during the session, was true to its word. The upper chamber shut down immediately after completing a vote on the maps.
"It was very disappointing," Griffith said. "Each one of these veterans bills makes a lot of sense. They are not controversial."
While Griffith said each of his bills is important, he perhaps feels strongest about HB 129, which would allow active military personnel who are deployed elsewhere in Missouri to retain pre-established visitation rights for children.
The bill would have no influence on visitation rights for military members deployed outside of Missouri.
"We wanted to establish some protections for them, so they don't lose the right to visit their children," Griffith said.
Another bill -- HB 132 -- is identical to a bill Griffith offered during the 2022 session. It tasks the Missouri Veterans Commission with expanding efforts to prevent veteran suicides.
"It set the wheels in motion for the (Interim Committee on Veterans Mental Health and Suicide) last summer," said Griffith, who chaired the committee.
The first of the committee's hearings (held in late July) devolved into a discussion about the toughness of service members -- present and past.
The commission's executive director, Paul Kirchhoff, testified the stigma surrounding seeking help for suicidal thoughts is even more pronounced in the military than in the general public. In the military, seeking help for behavioral health issues may be seen as a weakness, he pointed out.
Gary Grigsby, past commander of the Missouri Department of American Legion and a former U.S. Marine, said during that first hearing that a "surprising number" of veteran suicides could be reduced, in part by getting veterans to attend American Legion meetings. He said the organization's leadership has initiated a number of programs to reduce suicidal thoughts. Back in the day, he said, drill instructors encouraged toughness beyond that of the general public.
Rep. Mike Stephens, R-Bolivar, prompted Grigsby to question females in the military. He suggested males see firearms as "toys."
Kirchhoff later refuted Grigsby's suggestion that toughness was either generational or gender-based.
Hopefully, the hearings raised awareness of suicides, Griffith said.
"It was eye-opening for those in the audience and those who watched it online to learn the part that mental health plays in that," he said. "My hope is this interim committee will be a springboard to address suicide -- not only in the veterans' community -- but in the community at large."
Rep. Willard Haley, a Republican representing District 58 which includes the Eldon area, said of the six bills he submitted for pre-filing he's eagerly anticipating the opportunity to cap rate increases for long-term care insurance policies with HB 46.
He's heard from numerous constituents who are frustrated with "exorbitant rate increases" recently.
"They get to be close to 80 years old and all of a sudden these insurance companies are raising their rates 40 to 50 percent every year," he said.
Haley, a former teacher, is also preparing to file a bill to raise teacher pay in Missouri, which he said is another one of his top priorities.
Other bills he has filed would place more stringent penalties on fentanyl use, name a portion of Highway 50 after Tuskegee Airman Sergeant James Shipley and allow cosmetologists to offer more mobile and home services, a need brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sen. Mike Bernskoetter, a fellow Republican representing the Jefferson City area in the upper chamber, said most of his seven bills were priorities he had sponsored in the past that hadn't made it across the legislative finish line. One, which was also filed in the House by Griffith, would allow state employees to be paid on the same day every two weeks rather than on set dates every month.
The effort made it to the governor's desk this year, but it was vetoed due to other provisions that were attached late in the session that would have extended a set of agricultural tax credits. Gov. Mike Parson opted to instead call the General Assembly back for an extraordinary session this fall dedicated to those credits, leaving the pay schedule change off the books for another year.
Berskoetter said this year's SB 111, which would only change a handful of words in statute, would hopefully make it through this session without additions to weigh it down.
"We think it's an easy fix, you know, make it more flexible to help people get paid twice a month or every two weeks. It just kind of gives the state employees more flexibility with their life and how their life works around their pay schedule," Bernskoetter said. "It was pretty easy last year, but it was on the tax credit bill so we could be totally vetoed with the tax. It was all part of it. So I don't think it'd be a problem if we can keep it light."
Bernskoetter's other pre-filed bills include an effort to alter legislation signed into law in the past that allowed those sentenced to prison as juveniles to apply for release after 15 years of a sentence. He said his bill would omit second-degree murder from the list of applicable crimes, requiring those convicted to serve out their sentences. Another bill would tie the duration of unemployment benefits with the unemployment rate, staggering them from 20 weeks when unemployment is at 9 percent down to eight weeks if unemployment reaches 3.5 percent or lower.
Bernskoetter said the number of bills he had added to the queue already was fairly standard, but noted that it was unusual to see the 163-member House and 34-seat Senate filing nearly the same number over the first couple of days.
Former Rep. Travis Fitzwater, R-Holts Summit, who was elected to the Missouri Senate to represent District 10 in the last general election, filed a total of six different pieces of legislation. These include SB 69, which would promote entrepreneurship and business development in the state and SB 71, which would help expand broadband access into unreached areas by allowing internet service providers to tap into pre-existing infrastructure.
Fitzwater is especially gearing up to push SB 70, which would incorporate Missouri into an interstate contract allowing professional counselors licensed and residing in a member state to practice in other member states without the need for multiple licenses.
Fitzwater's wife is a licensed professional counselor, and together they've witnessed firsthand the outsized need for more mental health workers across the state.
"I want to make it easier for professionals to get here and do their heroic work in our state, especially mental health providers," he said
Another priority for Fitzwater is SB 151, which would exempt childcare facilities from property and real estate taxes.
While campaigning, protecting kids was one of the biggest constituent priorities that arose. He said this bill is a good first step toward incentivizing more childcare service providers to open up in Missouri and remain financially feasible.
"We have working-class folks that can't find childcare, which prevents them from being able to go back to work when they have kids. We want to support families, yet we have a childcare issue in our state," Fitzwater said.
The 2023 legislative session begins Jan. 4.
CORRECTION: A bill filed by Rep. Rudy Veit would set retirement eligibility for state employees when their age and years of credited service reach 80. This article was edited at 7:46 a.m. Dec. 5, 2022, to correct the eligibility number, which was incorrect in the original version.