Legislature has full plate for session

BY KIT WAGAR, SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH LIGHT

As Missouri lawmakers return to Jefferson City, they plan to tackle a wide range of issues, from Medicaid reform and tax cuts to more money for higher education.

Several lawmakers said those kinds of major policy debates will likely leave less time for the conservative social legislation that at times dominated debate last year. With more Democrats in the both the House and Senate, some of those efforts to promote prayer in public schools and declare the United States “a Christian nation” may never get out of committee, they said.

But that doesn’t mean social conservatives won’t try. One Republican lawmaker has already filed legislation to restrict sex education in public schools. And two Republican lawmakers have announced they will file legislation to try to reverse the Nov. 7 statewide vote that protected stem cell research in Missouri.

Sen. Chuck Graham, a Columbia Democrat, said the Senate is always less hospitable to social legislation than the House. But with two additional Democrats, he said, legislation with a fundamentalist Christian bent can be stopped using delaying tactics, if necessary.

“You know they will propose that stuff, but this session we’ll have a more effective block,” Graham said.

Karen Aroesty, regional director for the Anti-Defamation League, said she was concerned that the so-called “morality agenda” was alive and well in the Missouri legislature. That is evident, she said, in the governor’s recent appointment to the state Board of Education of two people who support the use of tax vouchers for private schools.

“There might be some bills (from last year) that we won’t see, but these issues are not going away,” Aroesty said. “These are key years prior to the 2008 presidential election. There will be a lot of posturing for the presidential election, so it will be interesting to see how that is reflected in statehouses around the country.”

The most glaring example of a faith-based approach to legislation is the proposed attack on stem cell research, she said.

“For members of the legislature, presumably on the basis of faith, to overturn the will of the people is a cause of concern,” Aroesty said. “Faith means a lot of things to many different people. A single faith should not be legislating for all.”

The stem cell proposal — authored by Sen. Matt Bartle of Lee’s Summit and Rep. Jim Lembke of St. Louis County — would delete all of Amendment 2, the stem cell initiative approved with 51.2 percent of the vote.

The new proposal would add a prohibition on cloning human cells. If approved by both the House and Senate, the proposal would go to another public vote, most likely in November 2008.

“We believe the message sent by voters on Nov. 7 was that they want to ban human cloning,” Lembke said. “Amendment 2 had a loophole a mile wide and this would close that loophole by banning all human cloning, including research cloning.”

Supporters of early stem cell research said Amendment 2 already prohibits human cloning by making it a crime to implant cloned cells into a woman’s uterus. Cloning a patient’s cells in the laboratory does not constitute “human cloning,” they said.

Senate Majority Leader Charlie Shields, a St. Joseph Republican, said the Bartle-Lembke proposal almost certainly would be debated on the Senate floor. But he predicted that most senators would be reluctant to vote on a proposal overturning the will of the people so soon after the election.

“Missouri Right to Life and the Catholic Conference will pressure legislators for a vote,” Shields said. “At the same time, I think many senators will say voters have spoken on this issue and we need to move on.”

Stem cell research also will be an issue in the proposed sale of assets held by the Missouri Higher Education Loan Authority, which provides low-cost college loans. Gov. Matt Blunt wants the agency to sell more than half its assets to raise $350 million, which would be used to pay for new buildings at state universities.

Most of the proposed buildings are intended to improve life sciences research and education at state universities. But Lembke and other social conservatives are intent on attaching restrictions that would prohibit research on early stem cells at any buildings funded with the loan authority’s money.

Perhaps the biggest issue of the session will be attempts to revamp Medicaid, which pays for medical care for the poor. Eligibility for the program was cut in 2005, removing 90,600 people from the program. The new program being proposed involves more emphasis on preventive care and incentives for patients to lead healthier lives.

Democrats have criticized the proposals as ignoring a fundamental problem: Too many people in Missouri lack health insurance.

“You could have great ideas about health care, but if those ideas are going to leave a lot of Misourians in the cold, that’s not a very good idea,” said Rep. Jeff Harris of Columbia, the Democratic leader in the House.

Sen. Chris Koster, a Harrisonville Republican, said it was imperative that Republicans get Medicaid reform right.

“The biggest challenge Republicans face is bringing a human and empathetic face back to our philosophy of government,” Koster said. “We need to show that Republicans have a genuine concern for working Missourians…In the November election, 76 percent of Missourians and more than half the Republicans told us that the government had waited too long to raise the minimum wage. That’s a strong indication that we have to listen harder to what the people are saying.”

Because of the Medicaid cuts and a strong economy, the state finished last year with a surplus of $292 million. Through November, revenue was running some $25 million ahead of expectations. Blunt and several Republican lawmakers are already talking about cutting taxes. Some, including Republican Rep. Scott Muschany of Creve Coeur, are pushing to reduce or eliminate the income tax on Social Security benefits.

Others, including Shields, would like to see money spent on tax incentives that encourage businesses to provide medical insurance for their employees.

Lawmakers from both parties agree the state needs to boost spending on higher education, which bore the brunt of the cuts during the state’s budget crises of 2002-05. Rep. Carl Bearden, a St. Charles Republican, is pushing for a $59 million increase in funding of state scholarships.

House Democrats, meanwhile, have floated a plan to boost overall funding of state colleges by $111 million, which would bring state support back to its 2002 level.

Aroesty said she also had concerns about immigration proposals, including one bill that would bar state funding for cultural exchanges with nations deemed to support terrorism.

“It’s important not to demonize groups because we think they are different,” Aroesty said. “I don’t know what chance the bill has, but it doesn’t send a positive message.”

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