Officials begin 2008 session in state capitol


With election-year rivalries hovering over the capitol, Missouri lawmakers returned to Jefferson City earlier this month expecting to take on a wide variety of hot-button issues.

Rep. Sam Page, a Creve Coeur Democrat, said emotions always run high during an election year, as lawmakers look for issues to run on — or issues to run against.

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“It’s harder for people to work together when an election is on the horizon,” Page said. “It takes real leadership to get things done and we don’t always see that.”

Page said this year is likely to produce a volatile and unpredictable legislative session as state lawmakers take on contentious issues such as health care and illegal immigration.

Senate leader Michael Gibbons, a Kirkwood Republican, said much of the legislation on immigration was likely to focus on employers. The question will become how much responsibility the legislature wants to put on businesses to verify the legal status of their workers.

House members have suggested measures that would prohibit the admission of illegal residents to any state university, require money-transfer companies to certify the legal status of people wiring money outside the country and require landlords to obtain documentation of legal residency before renting apartments. Another bill would fine businesses that employ illegal workers on state-financed or state-subsidized projects.

Sen. Joan Bray, a University City Democrat, said most of the proposals could create problems because immigration law is complex and local officials are not trained to evaluate the status of different types of visas.

“I worry about legal immigrants getting the raw end of the deal here,” Bray said. “I think most of this is about politicians trying to find a new wedge issue.”

Rep. Jane Cunningham, a Chesterfield Republican, said identifying illegal immigrants is an important issue.

“It’s not fair to pay taxes and then someone who is here illegally gets to utilize those programs,” she said. “I think all of us want to welcome with open arms immigrants that are here legally, but when others here are cheating, it’s not fair to those who have gone through the proper channels.”

David Winton, a lobbyist for the Jewish Federations of St. Louis, said Jewish social service agencies were worried about just how onerous the proposals could become.

“Will food pantries have to check the status of people before they give out food?” Winton said.

Health care issues also are likely to dominate lawmakers’ time. Gov. Matt Blunt has proposed a plan that would dramatically expand government-paid health care by providing coverage for custodial parents living below the poverty line and low-cost insurance for people making nearly twice the poverty level.

House Republicans, however, have expressed skepticism about the proposal. And several senators questioned how the state could afford such a program given last year’s decisions to cut income taxes for the elderly and expand tax subsidies for business.

Rep. Rachel Storch, a St. Louis Democrat, said the proposal flies in the face of repeated assertions by Republican legislative leaders.

“This plan costs a lot of money, which the Republican majority has been adamant we don’t have,” Storch said.

Cunningham said the proposal is a sign that the state’s economic strength has improved. “The policies of this administration have allowed us to overcome the $1.1 billion shortfall we saw before this administration began. Now we have a surplus that is significant enough that the Governor is making this proposal,” she said.

Lawmakers also are likely to make another run at providing tax credits to help families living in low-performing school districts to pay the cost of tuition at private schools.

The state takeover of the St. Louis public schools has sparked new interest in alternatives to traditional public schools. Storch said the state needs to help students by putting more money into preschool, after-school programs and computer-based reading instruction.

Property tax limitations also are high on this year’s agenda. Gibbons is pushing a plan to prevent schools and local government from reaping a tax windfall because of rising property values.

Gibbons said in St. Louis County, rising property values increased taxes $46 million this year — a 22 percent jump — without a single vote by a school board, a city council or county government. His plan would require local governments to roll back tax rates so that such windfalls would be limited to the rate of inflation, up to a maximum of 5 percent.

Property tax relief is one priority for Republican Sen. John Loudon. Loudon introduced, along with Sen. Harry Kennedy and Sen. Gibbons, the bill to roll back property taxes.

Mike Reid, Loudon’s chief of staff, said one of Sen. Loudon’s key priorities this year will be protecting children.

“We plan to toughen child pornography laws, and help law enforcement agencies protect our state’s children,” Reid said.

Lawmakers said they also expect proposals to boost child care subsidies for the working poor, to eliminate limits on political contributions and to eliminate the casino loss limits that prohibit high-stakes gambling.