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story.lead_photo.caption Chris Ortmeyer sits behind the rostrum on the Missouri House floor configuring lawmakers' voting system for the 2020 session.

Common themes are emerging among Missouri lawmakers' expectations of the key issues that will be tackled during the fast-approaching legislative session, which opens Wednesday — including gaming and tort reform.

Missouri Senate President Pro Tem Sen. Dave Schatz, R-Sullivan, said he's concerned about unregulated gaming machines.

"There's been a desire to legalize the illegal stuff," Schatz said. "A stop should be put to it."

A special interim committee of the House of Representatives looked at gaming issues after Missouri's 2019 legislative session. It considered whether to regulate or crack down on unregulated gaming machines that have led the Missouri Highway Patrol to temporarily pull staff from other duties to assist in investigating complaints.

Schatz said Missouri should enhance penalties associated with illegal gaming operations, and the state could threaten non-compliant, liquor-licensed establishments with the possibility of license revocation.

"I don't think the gaming issue will get any further unless we get the illegal gaming under control or crack down on it or do away with — I guess as much as you can with legislation," state Sen. Mike Bernskoetter, R-Jefferson City, said.

The interim House committee on gaming initially formed to study whether to allow sports betting and video gambling.

State Sen. Jeanie Riddle, R-Mokane, said whether the state should regulate illegal gaming depends on whom one speaks with, but added, "it might be a little unfair to not have regulations on the other gaming aspects that are around the state because casinos have to jump through lots of hoops."

Riddle also would like to prevent underage people from accessing machines that have become the focus of discussions about illegal gaming.

Tort reform is another issue that demands attention, Riddle said.

Missouri has work to do on tort reform, she continued. Senate Bill 555, which she pre-filed, would prohibit — after 15 years in most cases — a person from filing a lawsuit against the manufacturer of a product that injured them.

Missouri Gov. Mike Parson signed several bills over the summer dealing with changes to court system operations. One of those new laws prohibits out-of-state residents from joining with a Missouri plaintiff to bring a lawsuit in the state.

Bernskoetter said he expects more work on tort reform in the coming session. Schatz added the subject of punitive damages in particular is probably at the top of the list.

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"We're going to be taking a look at the redistricting issues in Clean Missouri," Schatz said of a priority of the Republican party.

In 2019, the House sent the higher chamber a proposed constitutional amendment that would erase parts of Amendment 1, also known as Clean Missouri. More than 1.4 million Missourians — or more than 62 percent of those who cast ballots — approved Clean Missouri in 2018.

The amendment created a nonpartisan state demographer position to redistrict the state using mathematical formulas based on partisan fairness and competitiveness, all of which legislators wanted to scrap last session and replace with a different redistricting process.

"I'm sure if they do something with Clean Missouri, my caucus will have something to say about that, and I think it depends what it looks like," said Minority Leader Sen. Gina Walsh, D-Bellefontaine Neighbors. "I think when there's such an overwhelming outcry from the folks in the state, we should listen to them."

Both sides of the aisle will likely file firearms legislation, she continued. Democratic lawmakers were critical of Parson, a Republican, after he called a special session during the summer to address a tax credit issue involving vehicle sales, yet took no action on gun violence.

Proposed legislation would make unlawful possession of a firearm a higher class of felony; increase prison sentences for armed criminal action; and increase penalties for the transfer of firearms or ammunition to certain individuals, fraudulent purchase of a firearm and transfer of a firearm or ammunition to an intoxicated person.

Cultures and mindsets are different between urban and rural areas, Walsh said, "but we have got to do something about gun violence in our state."

The senator said she wants to see some "common sense" gun safety reforms, which may include legislation on firearms storage.

Medicaid expansion and the establishment of a statewide drug-monitoring program are issues Democrats will continue to support, she said.

With Missouri's abortion law tied up in courts, lawmakers don't see much happening on that issue.

"We passed a really good pro-life bill (last year), so I don't know that you can improve upon it too much," Bernskoetter said.

He expects lawmakers to discuss a gas tax bill that would increase the tax on gasoline from 17 to 19 cents a gallon and on diesel fuel from 17 to 23 cents per gallon.

 

Personal priorities

Senators also have their own priorities for the session.

Among the bills he's pre-filed, Bernskoetter said he hopes to get a bill passed to transfer some land in Cole County to the Heartland Port Authority for a Missouri River port in Jefferson City. He filed a similar bill last year, as did state Rep. Rudy Veit, R-Wardsville.

"We discussed it in the Senate, but it was more the opposition in the House, and I think Rep. Veit's going to be able to get it in a different committee where the chairman's more favorable on that kind of legislation. I don't really know that there was a huge push against it (otherwise)," Bernskoetter said.

Development of the state's waterways will further stimulate Missouri's economy, Veit said. That would also relieve the stress highway traffic is placing on the state's roads and bridges.

Last year, bills by Bernskoetter and state Rep. Dave Griffith, R-Jefferson City, aimed to fund a steamboat museum through a $1 increase on the admission fee to Missouri's casinos. The bills were spurred by the Steamboat Arabia Museum in Kansas City losing its lease in November 2026.

Whether legislation passes, it remains unclear whether a new museum should be in Jefferson City or in another community.

Riddle would like to pass a bill establishing training standards for coroners.

"Missouri is one of the few states in the nation (where) a coroner does not have to be law enforcement or medical personnel, and so it is imperative that they go through some training to understand exactly what they need to do," she said.

She also has a bill that would limit inspections of facilities that produce eggs, milk, other dairy products, livestock and poultry, or dogs or other animals not used to produce food products.

"I would assume that we don't have inspectors from other states coming in, but we have people representing what they want to change. We've run into issues in the past," she said, citing California law on eggs. "We don't think that the citizens or the state of California should determine how Missouri raises their chickens."

Veit's priorities in the House will include initiative reform, he said in a statement to the News Tribune.

Initiative petitions that would create constitutional amendments must be less confusing for voters, Veit said.

"We cannot have our state Constitution being amended by special interest groups every time someone comes up with an idea and a couple million dollars. We need to make our state Constitution what it should be, a sacred document, only modified by a large number of citizens signing initiative petitions and the voting majority approving it to be a higher standard," he said.

House Speaker Elijah Haahr, R-Springfield, created an interim committee to look into sudden — and in some cases, massive — property tax jumps in Jackson County.

Veit said he listened to and followed the hearings on the issue. He contacted the Cole County Assessor's Office and found the issue is not local. Existing laws are fine for most Missouri communities, he concluded.

"It seems to me that it's just a major issue out of Jackson County where the assessor or previous assessors failed to properly assess their property. Let's solve that problem and not pass new property assessment regulations affecting the rest of the state," Veit said. "We should fix the problem in front of us and not try to redo our entire state's personal property tax — and set up artificial guidelines."

Agreeing with Veit was state Rep. David Wood, R-Versailles.

"I have somewhat followed the hearings on the local taxes, and I believe that this is a topic that needs to be discussed further," Wood said. "It is a fine line when the state looks to make changes to local revenues. We also have to be careful that we don't make decisions based on urban areas that could have a large negative impact on rural areas."

State Rep. Sara Walsh, R-Ashland, is a member of the House Budget Committee and chairs the Subcommittee on Appropriations for Transportation, Revenue, Corrections and Public Safety. Those are responsibilities she's taking especially seriously, she said.

Rep. Walsh said she'll focus on legislation she pre-filed in early December. House Bill 1256 would repeal a requirement that an applicant for a motor vehicle or vessel registration provide a personal property tax receipt or certified statement before a registration will be issued.

House Bill 1257 would allow in-home licensed child care facilities to qualify for the exemption for related children when calculating the number of children in care in a home. The Legislature repealed the same language last year.

House Bill 1601 would authorize (upon voter approval) a transient guest tax of 5 percent per occupied room per night for the city of Ashland. The tax is to be used for the promotion of tourism and economic development. It would also be used for public safety purposes.

"I'm passionate about the legislation I have filed, as those are issues I am working to resolve (streamlining government by removing the requirement for Missourians to have to show their property tax receipt when registering their vehicle; fixing the problem that was created when language was removed from statute last session with 'Nathan's Law' that removed the exemption for relatives of licensed childcare facilities from being counted in the numbers); and allowing the city of Ashland to put before voters ballot language to consider whether or not to approve a hotel lodging tax of no more than 5 percent," Rep. Walsh said.

Wood is another local lawmaker whose responsibilities include work on the annual budget.

Wood, the House Budget Committee vice chairman, said he has not set any personal goals for the session.

"I spend the majority of my time working on the budget, and my goal there is to get the most out of revenues we have and maintain a balanced budget," said Wood, who will serve for his eighth year. "With my time in the House coming to a close, I will spend a lot of time helping the newer representatives with their legislation and passing on as much institutional knowledge as I can."

Griffith said he intends to get his Capitol Complex bill — intended to fund maintenance on older state buildings — "across the finish line."

He will continue to work at getting state employees pay raises, he said.

A personal goal is to bring "more awareness of the POW/MIAs and the blight families deal with every day without having closure of their loved ones," the U.S. Army veteran said.

"Veterans will always be at the top of the list, followed by state employees' compensation," he said.

Disaster relief is also on Griffith's mind, he said.

"I am working with one of my colleagues who was a county assessor to give local county commissioners the authority to give relief to those businesses affected by disaster, (such as) tornadoes or flooding," he said. "Currently, there can be some tax relief for residents but not businesses. This will not help those in my district affected by the May 22 tornado or the local flooding but will help communities in the future who face these challenges. There needs to be a fair and equitable way of helping those businesses affected by disaster, and I think it should be done at the local level — and the General Assembly can give (local government) that authorization."

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