Jewish legislators discuss priorities


Jewish members of the Missouri General Assembly outlined their top priorities during the current legislative session, which began Jan. 7, as well as some possible hurdles they anticipate facing. The four legislators, all Democrats, also discussed the special challenges they face as members of the minority party in both the Missouri House and Senate, as well as what new opportunities might arise during Democratic Governor Jay Nixon’s tenure. The legislators spoke at a meeting of Jewish community leaders convened by the Jewish Community Relations Council, which was held last week at Congregation Shaare Zedek.

The St. Louis area legislators included Representatives Rachel Storch, 64th District; Jill Schupp, 82nd District and Steve Brown, 73rd District, and Senator Jeff Smith of the 4th Senate District. Representative Jake Zimmerman, 83rd District, was unable to attend. Another Jewish member of the Missouri House is Jason Kander of Kansas City.


“My top legislative priority is House Bill 312, which would provide tax credits for bio-technical research and development,” said Storch. “We have many natural assets in this area and Missouri is poised to become a national leader. We have companies and entities like Monsanto, Pfizer and the Danforth Plant Science Center. We live in a very competitive world, and if we don’t make the effort to build on these assets, we will be passed by.”

Storch, who has served in the Missouri House for five years, and is the senior member of the informal “Jewish Caucus” in the General Assembly, told the gathering the Kansas Reinvestment Act has helped that state “land important bio-defense funds. Even with our current economic climate, I believe we can get this bill passed and it has been heard and voted out of the Job Creation and Development Committee. The Republican leadership says it also wants to move this bill.”

Storch said that a major challenge is the “anti-tax-credit climate” among some of her colleagues. She added that the minority party Democrats “often have our hands tied,” but she noted some progress in building bridges to some key members of the Republican leadership in both houses of the Missouri Legislature.

Steve Brown praised Storch for developing “an excellent relationship with the House Speaker,” and said that he enjoys working with “my progressive Democratic colleagues on issues that concern us.”

“I have learned very quickly what it means to be in the minority party,” he noted. “Of the 20 bills introduced by Democrats since the beginning of the session, only three have been reported to committee, and Rachel has two of them. It is often a long process with things moving at a glacial pace.” He explained that he shared the goal of more “green environmental initiatives,” but that in outstate Missouri there is much resistance to these efforts. He added that a major challenge is that the Missouri budget faces a shortfall of between $250 and $300 million.

Jill Schupp, who is also new to the legislature, said a big priority is “to do all we can to make sure that people find work.”

“I got the same dose of reality as Steve Brown did. I am on a Higher Education Committee and a tax reform committee, and sometimes when we just meet for pizza to talk things over, it can get pretty heated; the lines were drawn.” She added that as a member of the committee that deals with the prison system, she is supporting alternatives to continued incarceration of non-violent offenders. She maintains they would gain more from rehabilitation than being cycled back into the prison system.

Senator Jeff Smith is also working on similar legislation which would provide alternatives to fathers who are unable to make child support payments because they are unemployed or have been hit hard by the economy. “It costs way more to keep these men in prison than it would to help them gain relief and find jobs so that they could contribute to the economy and meet their obligations,” he said. “The Father-in-Courts program addresses the fact that 80 percent of African-American kids are born out of wedlock. When the dads go to jail for criminal non-payment of child support, the children suffer. We need to address this problem.”

Other issues discussed by the legislators included nuclear power and restoring the healthcare and Medicaid funding cuts during the previous governor’s administration.

The current economic downturn presents its own set of challenges, the four legislators agreed. But having a new governor in the same party does help, Smith pointed out. “Before, we had a soccer team on the field, but now we also have a friendly goalie.”