The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

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March 16, 2013

Lawmakers’ attention likely to turn to budget after break

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Lawmakers left Jefferson City on Thursday for their annual spring break week having sent two bills to Gov. Jay Nixon. When they return, however, the stacks of bills on their desks will continue to rise.

In the final week of the first half of the session, legislation that would renew a series of so-called benevolent tax credits cleared both chambers of the General Assembly. The bill, sponsored by state Sen. Bob Dixon, R-Springfield, would restore expired tax credits aimed at aiding food pantries, pregnancy crisis centers and the families of slain law enforcement officers.

Legislation was also sent to the governor that would provide up to $3 million a year to help cities and local organizations lure sporting events to the state. The program would be administered through tax credits of up to $5 per ticket based on the number of tickets sold.

“Promises made and promises kept,” boasted House Speaker Tim Jones to reporters on Thursday. “We’re taking on tough challenges and moving forward.”

Jones, R-Eureka, said the House was proud of passing legislation that would change the Missouri Human Rights Act regarding discrimination claims in the workplace, making it harder for employees to sue. Republicans say the proposal is in line with federal law, but Nixon nonetheless vetoed the bill last year.

When lawmakers return to Jefferson City later this month, the bulk of their attention will move to passing the state’s $24 billion operating budget. Gov. Jay Nixon has toured the state over the past five months touting his plan to accept more than $1 billion in federal funds to expand the state’s Medicaid rolls to some 300,000 Missourians, but the funding was not included in the budget passed by House Budget Committee last week.  

“The Medicaid system is already broken. Medicaid is a mess,” Jones said. Therefore, he said, such a wide expansion would be “malpractice on the taxpayers.”

Republicans are instead working on their own Medicaid plan that they say is an effort to “transform” the program, not necessarily expand it. Jones tasked Rep. Jay Barnes, R-Jefferson City, with working out the issue. His proposal would allow individuals making 100 percent of the poverty level to use the program, clashing with the federal requirement of 138 percent.

On Thursday, the Senate Republican leadership, including Majority Floor Leader Ron Richard, R-Joplin, penned a letter to Nixon calling on him to propose a “common-sense, Missouri solution” to the problem.

“The state already spends nearly half of all state general revenue on the Medicaid program,” the letter signed by Richard, Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey, and five others read. “An expansion of such a large program with a partner as unreliable as the federal government would likely mean future tax increases or serious cuts to vital priorities, like K-12 education.”

Nixon said in a statement Friday that he was encouraged by lawmakers reaching out to him and pledged to continue to pursue the nearly $5.6 billion in federal funds the state would receive from the program.

“I look forward to continuing to work with the General Assembly to make our health system as efficient and effective as possible by bringing the tax dollars Missourians send to Washington back to work here in Missouri,” he said.

The House Budget Committee did move language forward that would provide tuition assistance to some 1,400 members of the Missouri National Guard. Their legislation was in response to the federal government’s decision to move forward on more than $1 trillion in automatic spending cuts over the next decade. Last year, the federal government provided nearly $3.7 million in tuition assistance, but those dollars were cut by the sequester.

House Veterans Committee Chairman Charlie Davis, R-Joplin, joined House Budget Committee Chairman Rick Stream, R-St. Louis, to announce an initial appropriation of $1.5 million in state funds to offset the loss of federal dollars.

“The federal government decided that they were not going to live up to their commitment to our soldiers,” Davis said at a news conference on Thursday. “Today, as our federal government turns their backs on our service members, we want our soldiers to know the Missouri Legislature stands behind them 100 percent.”

Stream’s legislation will be heard in the House when they return from break, before heading to the state Senate.

Spring break

Legislative spring break began on Friday. Lawmakers are schedule to return to Jefferson City on Monday, March 28.

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    Billions of dollars are on the line when Missouri voters head to the polls on Tuesday to consider Amendment 7.
    The constitutional amendment, sent to the voters by the Legislature this year, would temporarily increase Missouri’s sales tax by three-quarters of 1 percent, raising an estimated $5.4 billion for the next decade to fund transportation projects. That includes more than $114.1 million in state funds for projects in Newton and Jasper counties, on top of additional revenue for localities that would be raised.
    After the Missouri Department of Transportation downsized in recent years, these projects are now mostly designed and built by private engineers, contractors and laborers — many of whom have contributed tens of thousands of dollars to a campaign effort to sway voters to support the measure.
    Last Monday — eight days ahead of the primary election day — supporters of the measure reported having raised more than $4.1 million for a campaign committee called Missourians For Safe Transportation and New Jobs, which was established last fall to support the measure.
    The International Union of Operating Engineers in St. Louis and Kansas City have contributed nearly $250,000 to the effort. That total was dwarfed by the $649,398 put in by the Industry Advancement Fund Heavy Constructors. Between its Missouri and Kansas companies, APAC — a construction contracting company that specializes in transportation projects — has contributed more than $150,000.
    “The whole idea that money is flowing into the campaign, of course it is,” said Sen. John Lamping, a St. Louis Republican who is opposed to the measure. “It would be a smart business decision to do that.”
    Lamping said the money pouring into the campaign supporting Amendment 7 is indicative of the financial gain the measure bodes for contractors and laborers.  
    Lamping proposed a measure in the Legislature that would redirect one-eighth of existing sales and use tax revenue directly to transportation projects, but he said that measure was rejected by legislative leaders. The coalition “didn’t hear about it,” the outgoing senator said, “because it was my idea instead of someone else’s idea.”
    Lamping, who filibustered a similar measure in 2013, said Republicans have an ideological consistency problem on the issue. He pointed to the Legislature passing a sales tax increase only a few weeks after overriding Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon’s veto of an income tax cut that will largely help businesses organized as limited liability corporations, like many of the companies that could benefit from the measure. Lamping said that the tax increase will mostly affect taxpayers who did not get a significant tax cut.
    “Who wants a tax cut in Missouri?” he said. “Businesses. (Republican leaders) wanted to make them happy and then they passed a tax cut. This is grand-scale special interest cronyism.”
    The ad campaign being funded mostly by the business interests features paramedics and construction workers claiming the measure would “fix our roads and keep Missouri families safe.”
    “We have a chance to give our highways and bridges the repairs they need,” says one ad, which is running in Joplin and statewide in the lead up to Tuesday’s vote. “We have a chance to fix what’s broken by voting yes on Amendment 7.”
    The commercial uses a lot of words to talk about the benefits of the measure, but two words in particular are noticeably absent from the commercial: “Tax increase.”  
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    Patek, a former state representative who now lobbies the Legislature, said he disagreed with Lamping’s notion that Amendment 7 is all about special interest gain.
    “There’s quite a bit to gain for Missourians,” he said. “We have serious road needs. We’ll win or lose by the benefits in Amendment 7. I’m not sure I agree with Senator Lamping’s assessment.”
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    The Missouri Truckers Association’s political action committee has contributed more than $27,000 to the effort to pass the measure. Tom Crawford, president of the association, said his members support the amendment because they see the problems on the road and deal with them every day. And passage of the measure does not mean anyone will stop paying fuel tax.
    “We overpay our fair share on the fuel tax,” he said, pointing to statistics by the American Transportation Research Institute that show truckers have accounted for about 14 percent of road usage while paying for 39 percent of all taxes and fees owed by motorists. “We pay sales taxes just like everybody does on goods and products that people buy in the stores.”
    Crawford said truck companies do not pay state sales taxes on the purchase of trucks, but they do pay a federal tax. “So, we won’t be impacted on new equipment purchase, but other areas of our business will be impacted just like every other taxpayer in the state will,” he said.
    Thomas Shrout, who is helping lead the campaign against the tax hike, said that is not good enough and that Amendment 7 lets truck drivers off the hook. “Under Amendment 7, they wouldn’t have to pay any more,” he said.
    Shrout’s opposition campaign has raised just over $27,000 — less than 1 percent of the total money raised by its supporters. They are targeting their opposition at the state’s urban core by spending money on direct mail and targeted robocalls in the final week.
    “We think using the sales tax to fund road projects is poor policy for the state of Missouri,” he said. “It should be rejected.”
    Shrout said the Missouri Department of Transportation and its supporters should go back to the drawing board and consider some of the other options like campaigning for toll roads or a gas tax increase — both based on road usage.
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