Gas prices lead lawmakers to end of session

By Kit Wagar, Special to the Jewish Light

As the Missouri legislative session moves into its final two weeks, a sense of urgency has begun to grip the capitol.

Legislation moves faster. Coalitions form across party lines, then suddenly collapse. The bigger issues bubble to the surface. And much of the conservative social agenda that dominated the early months of the session seems to be fading into the Jefferson City twilight.

Republicans, who dominate both the House and Senate, took over the governor’s office last year, giving them complete control of state government for the first time since 1922. As the legislative session winds down, it seems to be taking on a tone similar to last year. Priorities reflect a mix of conservative ideology, a slant toward privatizing government services and a desire to hand out favors to selected industries.

The most obvious example of favors to a special interest group was passage of a bill that will require nearly all gas sold in Missouri after Jan. 1, 2008, to contain 10 percent ethanol, an alcohol product derived mainly from corn. The measure caused a rift between Republicans who believe in a free market and Republicans carrying water for agricultural interests.

The bill was heavily lobbied by corn growers and the bill’s sponsor, Republican Sen. John Cauthorn of Mexico, said the bill would help wean the United States off its dependency on foreign oil. Opponents, he said, were lobbying for big oil.

But critics, led by Republican Sen. Matt Bartle of Lee’s Summit, said it would force motorists to pay as much or more for a product of inferior quality. Sen. Luann Ridgeway, a Smithville Republican, said motorists already struggling with record-high gas prices would blame legislators for increasing their costs further just to appease corn farmers.

“I know why I was sent to Jefferson City and it wasn’t to interfere with the free market,” Ridgeway said. “It was not to provide an unfair competitive advantage to one industry over others. And it was not to pick winners and losers” in business.

Approval of the bill was reminiscent of last year’s bills protecting real estate agents and the insurance industry. The legislature approved a measure that prohibits real estate brokers from offering homeowners bare-bones selling services in exchange for a low fee. Gov. Matt Blunt signed the legislation despite objections from the U.S. Justice Department, the Federal Trade Commission and the Consumer Federation of America, all of which called the bill anti-competitive and unnecessary.

Insurers won passage of a bill that eliminated the public’s access to complaints filed against insurers about their underwriting practices or their refusal to pay claims.

Among the successful ideology-driven efforts this year is Rep. Carl Bearden’s attempt to change the way higher education is funded. Bearden, a St. Charles Republican, wants to channel more money into student scholarships that can be used at public or private schools and limit money going to state universities.

Critics called the plan a naked attempt to funnel tax money to private, even religious, universities. The Senate last week agreed to provide $10 million for scholarships, but they refused to put any limits on future funding for state universities.

Bearden’s plan fits with the desire of many Republicans to let the private sector take over many services that the government currently provides. That is evident in several parts of the state budget, including funding for the state’s Habilitation Centers, which care for adults with mental retardation often complicated by other disabilities. Gov. Matt Blunt has moved to phase out the Bellefontaine Habilitation Center near St. Louis, and people with family members at the Nevada Habilitation Center fear their facility is slated for extinction as well.

Funding for Nevada was basically flat. But funding for Bellefontaine was cut by nearly $4 million, and the authorized staff was reduced from 893 to 646.

People with family members at Bellefontaine have been resisting state efforts to move residents into smaller group homes with less intensive supervision. In an effort to show that the group homes would not be safe, family members have been attempting to obtain injury reports and other documents on conditions at the group homes. But the state has so far rebuffed those requests.

With lawmakers maneuvering through all those issues – including many that involve big money – most of the social legislation has lost its luster. The House, for example, approved a ban on the use of state funding to provide birth control to low-income women. But the Senate deleted the ban.

A bill that would have required public school sex education classes to drop discussion of contraceptives was changed so that such instruction would still be required. The watered-down bill was approved by the House, but it appears to have little support in the Senate.

A resolution that sought to recognize “a Christian God” as the deity for most Missourians was allowed to die a quiet death. The first bill introduced to ban abortion has not even received a perfunctory second reading in the Senate. Neither of the bills that would penalize people for living in sin have even come to a vote in committee.

Bills to subsidize religious schools and allow the Bible to be taught in school continue to languish in the House and Senate. A bill that would change the mission of the Missouri Women’s Council from assisting working women to helping woman make the transition from work to home was recently taken off the Senate calendar.

A proposed constitutional amendment that would emphasize the right to pray in public is still alive in the Senate, even though both supporters and critics agree that Missourians already have that right. The proposal was approved by the House and was heard by a Senate committee last week. But the Senate tends to be pragmatic and several senators see little reason to pass legislation that merely reaffirms the current law.