Missouri Legislature begins 2018 session with unfinished business

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JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — The Republican-controlled Missouri Legislature is looking to complete some unfinished business following the start of the 2018 session Wednesday, including efforts to further regulate unions and enact more restrictions on lawsuits.

This is the Missouri GOP’s second year with historic power: Republican control of the governor’s office and supermajorities in both legislative chambers.

Gov. Eric Greitens’ 2016 election opened the floodgates to enact long-sought conservative priorities such as various limits on liability lawsuits and a right-to-work law banning union fees, which will be up for a public vote this year.

But Republicans didn’t check everything off their wish list, and this year they appear set to advance issues that also took center stage last year.

Here’s a rundown of top issues for GOP lawmakers this year:

LABOR

Both Republican Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard and Republican House Majority Leader Rob Vescovo cited repealing Missouri’s “prevailing wage” law, which sets minimum local wages for public construction projects, as a top priority. Current law requires cities, school districts and other government entities to pay more than the state’s minimum wage of $7.85 an hour for public construction and maintenance projects. The rates are calculated on a county-by-county basis.

Critics of the law say it drives up construction costs for schools and other local projects, but supporters argue axing the law would allow the state to undercut union workers.

Also still pending are efforts to require workers to annually opt-in to have union fees and dues automatically taken from their paychecks.

LAWSUITS

Richard and Vescovo said there’s more to be done on “tort reform,” which generally refers to restrictions on liability lawsuits. Top Missouri business lobbying groups are pushing for change, they said to cut back on unnecessary lawsuits and improve the state’s legal climate for businesses.

Legislation filed so far ranges from rules on where lawsuits should be heard to a failed bill filed by Richard last year that critics said would gut state consumer-protection laws.

TAXES

GOP House and Senate leaders and Greitens have said they’re interested in revamping state tax laws, but they have been vague on how. Bills filed thus far include ending a 2 percent discount for businesses that file taxes on time, capping tax credits for low-income housing development and phasing out the state’s income tax.

Richard and Vescovo said state plans depend on the impact of the federal tax overhaul signed into law by President Donald Trump last month.

ETHICS

Despite campaign promises from Greitens to tighten state ethics laws on elected officials, no bills made it to his desk last year. House members, who under Speaker Todd Richardson have been at the forefront of those efforts, are trying again this year. Vescovo said a bill by Republican Rep. Justin Alferman to ban lobbyist gifts to public officials is a top contender.

But it’s unclear if this year’s ethics proposals will make progress in the Senate, where similar bills have died in past sessions.

OTHER PRIORITIES

Richard said undoing cuts to in-home and nursing care for seniors and those with disabilities still is a priority, and he said the goal is to get a fix to Greitens’ desk this session.

Vescovo said House Republicans want to pass bills to combat human trafficking, cut down regulations on professional hairbraiding and raise the minimum age of marriage in the state.

Greitens is calling on lawmakers to enact improvements to the state’s foster care and adoption programs and pass proposals he said will improve life for veterans in the state — topics that appear uncontroversial and likely areas for bipartisanship.

House Democrats have unveiled comprehensive plans to rework ethics laws and address the state’s opioid epidemic. There’s overlap between Republican and Democratic goals on those issues, but Democratic bills generally have slim odds in the GOP-dominated Legislature.

POTENTIAL COMPLICATIONS

A number of Greitens’ appointees to boards and commissions will be up for Senate confirmation, which could mean fireworks following outcry over the governor’s work to use appointees to bring sweeping changes in both executive leadership and state policy.

At least one senator — Republican Gary Romine — has said he plans to block the confirmation of Greitens’ appointees to the State Board of Education, who last year fired the state’s top education official and now are hastily making moves to find a replacement, possibly before they’re up for confirmation.