JEFFERSON CITY - With half of the legislative session under their belt, local lawmakers are sizing up the issues that are coming out of this session and preparing to push their priorities through with about eight weeks left.
All five of the legislators who represent Boone County named the budget as their first priority for this year.
"Almost all of my time and energy is spent working on the budget process," said Rep. Vicky Riback Wilson, D-Columbia, who sits on the budget committee and one of the appropriations committees.
The constitution requires that the state legislature must pass a balanced budget by May 9. It is the only expicit responsibility of the legislature laid out in the constitution.
In his state of the state address, in January Gov. Bob Holden announced his plan to make up for a projected shortfall of $1 billion in next year's budget mostly with tax increases from gambling and cigaretts.
The Republican leadership of both the House and the Senate have said they are committed to balancing the budget through cutting back state programs.
"We have heard a lot about performance-based budgetting, but this is slash budgetting," Wilson said.
A new Republican plan unvieled this week would give a lump sum to each state department and delegate the department directors to allocate the money to specific programs.
Rep. Chuch Graham, D-Columbia, has called this move unconstitutional because the bill does not appropriate money.
"This is an approprations bill that doesn't appropriate," Graham said. He also predicted that the budget will not be finished during the regular session which would require the lawmakers to work past the May 30 adjournment set by the constitution.
The House is expected to take up the budget this week and pass it off to the Senate before the legislature goes on spring break the last week of March.
Another leg of this session's agenda has been to revise the laws regulating malpractice lawsuits including the amount of damages awarded to patients. A bill sponsored by Sen. Delbert Scott, R-Lowry City, would allow patients to get no more than $350,000 in punitive damages.
Most local legislators oppose the changes, saying that it hurts patients and helps big business.
"There is a problem with malpractice costs escalating in the state, there is no question about that," said Sen. Ken Jacob, D-Columbia. "But the Republican plan is to allow corporations to injure patients and workers. The scales of justice are tipping against patients."
The Senate debated the issue for more than 15 hours last week with Jacob leading a filibuster attempt against the bill.
Speaker Catherine Hanaway, R-St. Louis County, said in her opening address to the House that creating jobs would be the goal of her party's leadership this session. She said nearly 100,000 jobs have left the state in the past years.
One of the Republican plans to bring jobs back to the state includes changes in the worker's disability laws. The bill dealing with this issue, sponsored by Rep. Kevin Wilson, R-Neosho, requires that workers can collect disability payments only if the worker can prove that the job was the dominant factor in causing the injury. It would also stop payments to workers who had a pre-existing condition affecting the work injury and whose injury was not caused by an accident.
Graham said this bill is an attack on workers' rights and victims' rights. Rep. Wes Shoemyer, D-Clarence, said the changes "favor big business and work against the little guy."
"I'm an old fashioned democrat, never forgetting who is the backbone of this country - the little guy," Shoemyer said.
But Rep. Steve Hobbs, R-Mexico, whose district covers the northeast portion of Boone County, said the House is passing the malpractice and workers' compensation bills to benefit corporations and encourage them to stay in the state.
"When corporations make a profit, they stay and pay taxes," Hobbs said. "These are things that will spur our economy and help future state budget situations."
The bill has been passed in the House and is working through a Senate committee.
In addition to these issues, which are dominating the House and Senate floor debate, local legislators are working on their own priorities that they want passed though this session.
SEN. KEN JACOB
Jacob put his priorities in a simple list.
"I want to pass a balanced budget, preserve full funding of education and prevent further higher education cuts," Jacob said.
REP JEFF HARRIS
Rep. Jeff Harris, D-Columbia, has introduced a resolution that would amend the state constitution to change the way school bonds are approved. The measure would require a simple majority of voters to approve a bond issue for public education instead of a four-seventh majority needed now.
The bill has not been heard in the House Education committee. Harris said he has requested a hearing.
"Instead of hearing my bill which would help the funding of all school districts, the committee chair has decided to hear bills about transporting private school children on public school buses and inclusion of nondiscrimination policies in schools," Harris said.
REP. VICKY RIBACK WILSON
Wilson is supporting a bill that would require health insurance providers to cover mental health illness and addictive disorders the same way they cover other physical illnesses.
Wilson filed similar legislation in January, but she said she had to sign onto a Republican-sponsored bill in order to gain attention for the issue.
"They won't even work with us on issues we can agree on," Wilson said. "It's not like they don't like the idea, they just want the credit for it."
REP. CHUCK GRAHAM
Graham's legislative priority for this year is a gambling package which would eliminate the $500 loss limit on gamblers, increase the amount of money paid for each person that comes into a casino from $1 to $2 and increase taxes on casinos by 2 percent. In his budget plan, the governor is relying on $193 million from this revenue to balance the budget.
"This is the easiest way to enhance revenue to fix this revenue problem," Graham said.
The bill has not been referred to committee and Graham said he doesn't hold out hope for his original bill to be adopted and will continue to look for ways to get his priorities passed.
"Being in the minority, I don't anticipate my bills being put through," he said. "The Republicans don't have much incentive to pass my bills."
REP. WES SHOEMYER
Shoemyer's district covers most of the northwestern part of Boone County as well as Howard and Randolph counties and he is mostly interested in rural agricultural issues.
He also has a bill that would allow taxpayers to donate their tax refunds back to the state if the Hancock refund is less than $10.
"We spend too much money sending out checks of $1 or $2," Shoemyer said. "It's just not good government."
This bill has been referred to the Tax Policy committee, but has not received a hearing.
REP. STEVE HOBBS
Hobbs is working primarily on a bill that would create a sherrif's task force to address the meth situation in the state. A recent study has shown Missouri to be the top producer of the drug in the country.
The state legislature has eight weeks to consider bills for this legislative session.
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