Jewish legislators assess current and future sessions

Robert A. Cohn

The effects of severe budget cuts in social services, made worse by the distressed economy, were high on the list of frustrations expressed by three Jewish Democrats serving in the Missouri House of Representatives. The three -Reps. Stacey Newman, 73rd District; Jill Schupp, 82nd District and Jacob Zimmerman, 83rd District spoke at a forum earlier in the week convened by the Jewish Community Relations Council at Congregation Shaare Zedek in University City. Not present was Rep. Rachel Storch, D-64th District, who announced earlier this year that she will be leaving the legislature.

Gerry Greiman, president of the JCRC said that the organization was “delighted at the opportunity to hear from three outstanding members of the Missouri legislature in what we might call ‘a guide to the perplexed’ in evaluating the work of the session about to conclude and looking forward to prospects for the next session.

“As to the question on the top priority facing us, I think for all of us it was the effort to try to strengthen the economy and help get people back to work. And, frankly, in this we did not fare so well,” Schupp told the audience of 85. “My specific interests are in the area of social justice, so it might be funny to you that much of my effort in the last session had to do with working towards a smoke-free Missouri. What I’m trying to do is assure that everywhere is smoke free in Missouri, including in our casinos, bars and restaurants,” she added, explaining that the bill did not get to committee this year, but she would try again next session.

She also noted that one of the top challenges legislators face is figuring out how to manage social services given the state’s massive budget cuts. “We need to find ways, such as a form of a sales tax to raise new revenues, as well as just cutting,” she said.

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Schupp also addressed what she called the problem of term limits and what they do to the legislature. She voiced concern that by the time legislators learned the many facets of the job and built up some institutional memory, he or she is “term-limited out of office.”

Stacey Newman, whose just finished first year in the General Assembly, said her top priority was photo identification legislation. “On the surface, asking voters to have a photo I.D. sounds like common sense,” she said. “But there are over 200,000 people in Missouri who don’t have that, and would thereby be prevented from voting.” The bill has been sponsored each year since 2006 by Rep. John Diehl from Town and Country, she said, but it has not yet passed.

“The Missouri Supreme Court actually threw this bill out when it passed in 2006 as being unconstitutional and there is a move to place a constitutional amendment to require photo I.D.’s on the ballot. This bill keeps coming back and may come back again as part of a sham ‘ethics’ bill,” she said.

Newman bemoaned major cuts to social service programs, especially Parents as Teachers, and warned that Governor Jay Nixon has said there will be even more.

“One proposal to generate more revenue is through what is called a streamlined sales tax under which Internet sales in Missouri would be subject to the Missouri sales tax,” Newman said. ” Missouri currently loses as much as $200 million a year in revenue by not being able to access this source.

“We can also increase our cigarette tax, since Missouri is 50th in the nation in its cigarette tax, at 17 cents per pack.”

Jake Zimmerman said he shared the concerns of his colleagues on the challenges caused by state budget cuts. “In fact, I would say that the five top challenges facing us next session are: the budget, the budget, the budget, the budget and the budget. Things are in a real mess and we face a real revenue crisis. We are being forced to try to balance our budget on the backs of the very people who need it the most.”

Zimmerman said one idea for reducing expenditures would involve closing a state prison and making more use of probation and parole for non-violent offenders. He also said that another major goal for him has been to pass meaningful and effective ethics reform in the legislature.

“I had said two years ago we needed to focus on ethics reform, and in the aftermath of some major scandals we did seem to make some initial headway,” he said. “But even though things have been stalled, we raised awareness of the instances of pay-to-play and revolving door legislator-to-lobbyist practices and the idea that there should be no limits on campaign donations. Gov. Nixon has asked me to carry his ethics bill to the floor of the House and I will be pleased to do so.”

Zimmerman also echoed Schupp’s concern about the negative effects of terms limits on the legislature. “We will lose half the current members of the General Assembly even if all the incumbents are re- elected,” he said. “We need the institutional memory that experienced legislators provide.

“We simply must reduce the number of legislators who are term-limited out of office just as they have gained the experience they need to serve as mentors to their younger colleagues.”