Legislators access progress
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Legislators access progress

Date: March 16, 2007
By: Gavin Off
State Capitol Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - Missouri lawmakers left for their week-long spring break Thursday, leaving the state's governor with one victory and two major legislative defeats in a one-two punch that closed out the first half of the session.

With the governor watching over the chamber, 35 House Republicans joined with Democrats to reject the Republican leadership's plan to address the St. Louis city school problems the governor had cited in his State of the State address in January.

One week later, a Democratic filibuster blocked approval of the governor's plan to sell off assets of the state's college loan program, MoHELA, to fund building-construction projects across the state. The blocked MoHELA bill also includes the governor's proposal for university performance standards and limits on tuition hikes.

But just before leaving, lawmakers handed the governor a measure he endorsed to strip CATV from local franchise restrictions -- allowing statewide digital and cable competition.  And tax cut measures have made progress in the legislature.

The other major issue in the governor's January address to lawmakers -- restructuring the state's Medicaid program providing health care coverage for the lower income -- has yet to face a vote in either chamber.  Instead, the Senate's Medicaid bill did not clear committee until just one day before the legislature left for its vacation.

Despite the MoHELA and education setbacks, the governor's spokesperson, Jessica Robinson, was upbeat.

"This is has been a very successful legislative session," Robinson said.  "We've seen several of the governor's priority issues making progress in both chambers."

It is normal for a legislative session to start off slow and complete its business in a flurry of last-week actions. And, along with passage of the CATV bill, the legislature has passed his supplemental budget requests including $60 million for community health centers. The House approved just before leaving on break a bill to phase out the franchise tax for businesses that provide health care coverage for their workers.

"At the halfway mark the legislature has accomplished quite a lot and they have a lot to be proud of," Robinson said. "And there's certainly still work to be done, but it is work that is manageable in the time that is left."

Lawmakers will return March 26. The session adjourns for the year at 6 p.m. on May 18.

"I think there's nothing wrong with going slow," said Senate Health Committee Chairman Chuck Purgason, D-Coalfield. "Usually when you work slow you're more careful of what you pass, making sure that you do everything right."

The Senate had been slowed for much of this week. Monday and Tuesday, Democrats embarked on a 14-hour filibuster to block a Republican vote and find a compromise on the MoHELA sale. Purgason noted, however, that the filibuster didn't overly interfere with Senate proceedings, since much of it took place at night. 

Sen. Wes Shoemaker, D-Clarence, said that although the filibuster increased the possibility of a compromise, the action could have been avoided.

"It took us about 20-some hours in before negotiations started," Shoemyer said. "We could have done those negotiations three months ago, 15 months ago."

Shoemyer said legislators made progress during the filibuster, "even though there may have been tempers."

But not everyone saw a need for the filibuster.

"If  you're not going to be part of the solution, you remain a part of the problem," said House Speak Pro Tem, Carl Bearden R- St. Charles.

Purgason also questioned why Democrats would filibuster the MoHELA talks, when he said more pressing and controversial issues topped the agenda.

Shoemyer said controversial, unresolved issues include Republican Sen. Chris Koster's bill that would block local control of concentrated animal feeding operations, also known as CAFOs, and Medicaid reform.

Koster's bill could nullify local ordinances governing agricultural operations, giving the state nearly sole authority in regulating farming-related activities.

And although Republican Sen. Charlie Shields' Medicaid bill passed out of the Health and Mental Health Committee, Shoemyer said "there's some unfinished business."

Shields' bill, would transform the Medicaid system into a program that focuses on preventative care and rewards recipients for making healthy lifestyle choices. Such choices would include quitting smoking and losing weight. 

Bearden said one of his personal priorities was finalizing the Medicaid bill.

"A lot of work is being done," Bearden said. "Just because it hasn't been seen on the floor doesn't mean it hasn't been worked on."

But differences remain.

Shoemyer, like other Democrats, said he wanted the General Assembly to reinstate the health care cuts legislators introduced in 2005, when the state was struggling financially. To help fund their reintroduction, Shoemyer said he'd support a sales tax on prepared foods.

"You let them know that this money is going for the poor, the indigent, the disabled," Shoemyer said. "The Medicaid bill we're looking at today, it's just about a reshuffling of the deck. It's a bill more about policies than about substance."

Purgason and Shoemyer said they anticipated the General Assembly passing a Medicaid bill later this session.

Robinson said Blunt was happy with the talks legislators have had on Medicaid, adding discussions were "all part of the process."

She also said the governor made his budget recommendations and it was up to legislators to approve a final budget.

The House Budget Committee's chairman -- Rep. Allen Icet, R-St. Louis County -- said the Budget Committee approved a budget Wednesday, and talks would begin on the House floor after spring break.

Icet said he expected education funding, Medicaid and Medicare to be the budget's main issues.

Icet said it usually takes longer to iron out the budget during legislative sessions that follow elections, since new legislators must be assigned to committees. Plus, he said, the governor announced this year's State of the State address later in the year.

"So there's a tendency to delay the start, and a tendency to delay the finish," Icet said.