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Local legislators disappointed with session’s progress

by Ryan Pivoney | May 1, 2022 at 4:00 a.m.

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- As the end of session approaches, Mid-Missouri lawmakers are more than frustrated with a lack of accomplishments.

The legislative session ends in less than two weeks on Friday, May 13, and the Legislature is staring down a constitutional deadline to pass the state budget by Friday, May 6.

If it fails to do so, lawmakers will have to return for a special session and agree on the budget by the end of June.

The Legislature has passed six bills, none of which accomplish the legislative priorities of the majority caucus in either chamber.

And only one has been signed into law, which was the supplemental budget containing state employee pay raises, Medicaid funding and federal COVID-19 relief money for K-12 schools. The bill was delivered Feb. 24 to Gov. Mike Parson.

In addition to a copious number of pet projects lawmakers have brought forth this session, two major priorities remain unfinished: the state's budget and congressional redistricting.

Members of the House said it's not for a lack of trying.

The lower chamber has perfected 141 bills this session, and the Senate has perfected 37 bills.

A lot of state representatives are frustrated with what's happening in the Senate or possibly what hasn't happened in the Senate, said Rep. Dave Griffith, R-Jefferson City.

"We work in very good faith and are being very responsible with the money," Griffith said. "We have a record amount of surplus. We're looking at spending that money on projects and things that are going to last a long time."

It's "generational money," he added. The House has prioritized its wishes for the money.

"Our budget chair (Rep. Cody Smith, R-Carthage) has done a good job, made good decisions," Griffith said. "To put in those thousands of hours and send it over to the Senate and have it blown up is frustrating."

Deadlines hang over the Legislature, he pointed out.

Rudy Veit, R-Wardsville, said he's equally concerned about getting meaningful legislation passed as getting the budget completed on time.

"Some of those bills have more effect on day-to-day lives," Veit said.

For example, House members heard a bill on gambling machines Wednesday, he said.

"We can't even agree on that. Frustration would be putting it mildly," Veit said.

Many pieces of legislation won't make it to the governor's desk, said Sen. Mike Bernskoetter, R-Jefferson City, so they'll have to be reintroduced next session.

"In general, I think there's going to be a small number of bills that actually get passed this year," Bernskoetter said. "I think it was only like 59 that got passed last year, and I'd say that number is going to be less than that this year."

The Senate hasn't accomplished much this session, Bernskoetter admitted, but senators are continuing work to try to find a path forward.

"Everything's getting cut close, that's for darn sure," he said. "There's still things that can get done, but obviously, we need to be out on the floor or behind closed doors having conversations."

Bernskoetter said it's more difficult to pass legislation when members of the Senate's Conservative Caucus hold the floor and fail to compromise. He said political grandstanding has been common this election year, particularly when the Senate was debating congressional redistricting maps.

"They complain about us wasting time and not doing the bills that we should be doing, while they waste time," Bernskoetter said. "They complain about wasting time while they're wasting time. They've got all these things they want to get to, but in order to get to them, they need to stop talking, but they won't stop talking."

Meanwhile, Veit and Griffith said, there are a lot of issues the Legislature needs to address. However, nothing's happening because people aren't meeting in the middle ground.

"We go into each session with caucus priorities -- redistricting, budget, initiative petition reform, voters rights -- when we get to the end of the session, we haven't accomplished much of that," Griffith said. "You can point fingers. We're past that point. A lot of us feel like we should have had a special session last fall so we could hash (redistricting) out. It seems like a special session works, and we get things done. In full session, with filibusters, we can hold things up a lot easier than special session."

With the few weeks remaining, Bernskoetter said he's still committed to working with the House to pass legislation.

The Senate on Wednesday moved to go to conference on House Bill 1720, an agricultural omnibus bill that contains several measures Bernskoetter has carried throughout the session. As chairman of the Senate Agriculture, Food Production and Outdoor Resources Committee, he said he wants to work with the House in conference to move the legislation across the finish line.

Bernskoetter said he's confident the General Assembly will pass the agricultural omnibus bill and the state budget before the end of session, but he's less optimistic about redistricting.

There's been a revived attempt to find a compromise on the maps, Bernskoetter said, so he's hopeful it can be reached.

"I still think there's a path forward," he said. "Everybody just needs to give a little bit on their priorities for the map. If we can get everybody to just give a little bit, I think we can get a map done."

Senate President Pro Tem Dave Schatz, R-Sullivan, said it'll be a busy final two weeks of session as conference committees work through budget bills and remaining legislation.

The Senate Appropriations Committee still has to decide how to spend federal COVID-19 relief dollars, committee chair Sen. Dan Hegeman, R-Cosby, said, so conferencing will likely begin Tuesday or Wednesday.

The Senate's version of the budget is $1.2 billion larger than the House version and includes more funding for school transportation, rural road repairs and higher education.

Hegeman said he's prepared to strongly defend many positions the Senate has taken throughout the budget process, but he'll work with the House to find points of consensus for the entire General Assembly.

"I look forward to that, but there will be some positions that we'll be pretty hard and fast on," he said.

Bernskoetter said funding for his district's priorities is in good shape and he doesn't foresee Lincoln University's land grant funding being taken away in conference.

LU's land grant funding became a topic of debate this session as lawmakers sought to address the state's historic under-funding of a federal match requirement. The university is supposed to receive roughly $10 million from the state each year to match dollar-for-dollar a federal grant of the same amount. The state has never fully funded the match until this year when the Senate nearly doubled the appropriation approved by the House. It'll be a topic open for debate in conference.

The House on Thursday selected members to serve on conference committees to hash out differences between House and Senate versions of the budget.

Veit said he's not fond of leaving matters to a conference committee.

"When we pass a budget and it sits in the Senate for a long period, then the Senate sends it back and we don't have time, it goes to conference," Veit said. "We really don't have any input (except through the House budget chair).

"It would be nice to have those bills here, so everybody could look at those bills and express what's in those bills."

Senate Minority Floor Leader John Rizzo, D-Independence, said the Legislature needs to meet its Friday deadline and remain focused on passing a budget.

"First and foremost, we need to get this budget done next week," he said. "You can't put the cart in front of the horse about what's going to come after that. We have a constitutional deadline that is approaching that I think we're all aware of. We've seen it derail out here countless times, so it can go south pretty quickly."

Hegeman said he's confident the entire budget will be complete by the Friday deadline.

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