Legislators brief JCRC on goals for next session

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

Three members of the incoming Missouri General Assembly outlined their goals for the next legislative session – beginning Jan. 4 – to members of the Jewish Community Relations Council last week, during a monthly Council meeting at Shaare Zedek Synagogue.

The lawmakers, all of whom described themselves as progressive Democrats, were Rep. Stacey Newman, 73rd District; Rep. Jill Schupp, 82nd District; and newly-elected Rep. Susan Carlson, 64th District, who succeeded former Rep. Rachel Storch, who recently moved to New York. Rep. Jake Zimmerman was unable to attend the meeting.

JCRC President Gerry Greiman asked the House members to discuss their legislative priorities for the upcoming session, plans for dealing with legislative proposals they oppose, ways to meet essential needs during a time of deep fiscal crisis and what steps the organized Jewish community can play in advocating for legislation it supports.

Schupp joked that that the rare total lunar eclipse the day before – obscured in St. Louis by cloud cover – was metaphorically similar with a “new political cloud.” Missouri’s stagnant population growth – which has prompted the loss of one of its nine seats in Congress – “is symbolic of how stagnant things have been in Jefferson City.”

She added that in the Missouri House of Representatives in the new session, there will be 153 members, “57 Democrats and 106 Republicans. In the State Senate, there are eight Democrats and 26 Republicans, and this is the political reality in which must seek our goals. Sometimes it feels, as Will Rogers once said, ‘There is no trick to being a humorist when you have a whole government working for you.'”

Looking towards the upcoming session, Schupp said she was working with colleagues to “put in place an Internet sales tax to make sure that Missouri gets its fair share of revenue for such sales. This would not be, as some in the other party have suggested an ‘additional’ tax. It is simply an effort to assure we get our fair share.

Another item relates to the fact that Missouri has the lowest cigarette tax in the country, 17 cents per pack. I am not a proponent of ‘regressive’ taxes, but it has been shown in other states that raising the cigarette tax will discourage young people from continuing to smoke.” Schupp said that she would continue her efforts for a statewide smoking ban.

Schupp added that the entire Missouri Tax Code, last revised in 1931 “is very outdated, and needs to be revised. It provides that everyone who earns $9,000 and above is in the same tax bracket. Obviously that is out of date. Another item relates to seeking alternatives to prison for non-violent offenders, something which was supported by the Chief Justice of the Missouri Supreme Court.” Schupp expressed opposition to a proposal put forward by Republican House members to change the basis of providing temporary assistance to needy families. Some are suggesting that recipients be drug- tested or be cut off. The small amount of the monthly stipend would hardly be enough to support a drug habit.”

In her remarks, Stacey Newman said, “After the grim picture of the political reality painted by Jill Schupp, I imagine you are glad that you are not joining us in Jefferson City. But I started fighting for issues I care about 10 years ago, and for me becoming a House member is like going home. I intend to continue my focus on equality and justice issues, such as pay equity, and to seek more effective ways to combat domestic violence. I attended a statewide Task Force on Domestic Violence called by the attorney general, and we heard some devastating testimony, including the fact that in Kansas City, some women and children have had to be turned away from shelters.” Newman added that she will support legislation which would require pharmacists in Missouri to fill prescriptions, to prevent people being refused on alleged ‘religious grounds’ from getting their prescriptions filled. “There is also a need for corporate tax reform to prevent firms from setting up tax dodge schemes which deprive Missouri of needed revenue,” she said.

Newman said that all of the speakers are members of the Progressive Caucus in the Missouri House, which had been co-founded in 1983 by now U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill. “We will work in lock step in support of a progressive agenda on such issues as supporting the continuation of the Non-Partisan Court Plan, opposition to the so- called ‘right to work’ proposals and opposition to the use of photo- identification for voting.

“We need to be unified and united in Jefferson City, and also be wiling to take our fight outside the legislature to gain support for our goals. The Jewish Community Relations Council and other groups can provide important support for these goals.”

In her remarks, Susan Carlson described herself as the “newbie,” among the group. She said that the freshmen members of the legislature were given an orientation “which seemed more like an effort to keep us in the dark than to give us information. In the past, the new legislators were taken to Springfield and Joplin and met with state officials. No one came from any of the agencies to give us information or respond to our questions, or to tell us what they do or how much it costs.”

Carlson and her colleagues all complained about the difficulties caused by term limits in the Missouri Legislature. “There is an amazing lack of institutional memory in Jefferson City, and this is mostly due to term limits.” Schupp agreed, saying, “I voted for term limits thinking it was a good idea, but shame on me for doing so. We lack the benefit of more experienced legislators who can provide a historic perspective.”

Carlson said that 82 of the 153 House members “are brand new, more than one-half of the total. I have observed that people on the Democratic side include many members who are familiar with how legislative process works. One of our members served as a county clerk for 25 years. Many of our Republican colleagues have no idea how things work legislatively. For example, we attended a bill- drafting session, and one of our Republican colleagues asked why we could not just pass a law that no laws could be introduced that were more than one sentence long. He was not joking; he was absolutely serious.”

Carlson added that in the General Assembly, “the power to get anything done rests in the hands of a tiny group of the leadership in the majority party. To get anything done, we must find a Republican who would be willing to use his or her influence with the leadership to help moves things forward.”

She added that she serves on the Judiciary and Rules committees as well as the Transportation Funding Committee. “All bills must pass through the Rules Committee, and my service on the Judiciary Committee gives me a place to help protect the Non-Partisan Court Plan. which is under assault by some members of the opposition. We simply do not want to go back to the partisan election of judges in St. Louis, St. Louis County and Jackson County. I was encouraged that Green County passed a Non-Partisan Court Plan of its own to cover trial judges.”

Carlson said that she will work to stave off efforts to amend the Missouri Human Rights Act, Title 7, which would make it more difficult to bring cases before the Missouri Commission on Human Rights.”

In the discussion that followed, each of the legislators expressed gratitude that bipartisanship in the U.S. Congress resulted in the repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy that blocked gays and lesbians from openly serving in the military, the federal tax rate proposal and the gaining of enough votes to ratify the New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) by the U.S. Senate. “There are still some progressive Republicans in Missouri who can assist us,” Carlson said. “And the positive actions by the Congress on Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, taxes and the START ratification provide us with a glimmer of hope.”