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JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – Lawmakers will be back in the Missouri State Capitol next week to start a new legislative session. 

After some called last session dysfunctional, it seems that both sides of the aisle are optimistic about the new year. While leadership says there’s still unfinished business from last session, one top priority for this year is the state’s historic surplus. 

Following the November election, dozens of new members will be joining the 102nd General Assembly. Some familiar faces include Sen. Caleb Rowden (R-Columbia) who previously was the Senate Majority Floor Leader.

Rowden is expected to be elected president of the Senate next week. 

“We’re still going to have days when we fight, but we’re in a better spot than we were,” said Rowden. “The demeanor and the interactions that we’ve had over the course of the last few months is a heck of a lot better than it has been.”

He expects members to continue having conversations from last session, like critical race theory (CRT). 

“We can’t just ban CRT, that won’t really do much in the grand scheme of things,” Rowden said. “My perspective is that it goes back to, ‘I don’t want to tell schools what to teach.’ What does make sense is giving parents more accountability and more opportunities for transparency to make sure they know what’s going on.”

He also wants to address teacher recruitment and retention. According to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), about 8,000 teachers make less than $36,000. 

“We want to try and raise their pay, we want to treat them and value them for what they’re worth,” Rowden said.

Across the aisle, Senate Minority Leader John Rizzo (D-Independence) said it’s time to use the state’s $6 billion in the bank to pay teachers more. Earlier this month, his local school district in Independence voted to move to a four-day week starting next year. 

“We’ve got to be competitive and when they are teaching Kansans five days a week, and we are over here on our side of the state, in Independence, teaching them four-days a week, those kids are going to be applying for the same jobs and one kids is going to be used to five-day weeks and one kid is not,” Rizzo said. “We learned during COVID, that kids are better in the classroom, they learn better.”

This year, more than 140 school districts have implemented a shortened week, most in rural areas. According to DESE, that’s an increase of more than 100 schools in just four years. Lawmakers approved four-day weeks in the late 2000s to help schools save money during hard times, but now it’s being used as a carrot for potential candidates. 

“We’re actually doing some research into that because I think Independence has no shortage of dollars to be able to be there five days,” Rowden said. 

Rowden said he’s interested in what causes schools like Hallsville, a town of 1,500 people north of Columbia, to move to a four-day week compared to Independence, a district with 14,000 students. 

Rizzo also hopes there is talk this upcoming session of stricter gun laws. 

“People in the state of Missouri overwhelmingly support background checks, they overwhelmingly support red flag laws but for some reason when it gets to the legislature, the ultra-conservative Republicans won’t allow it,” Rizzo said. 

Rowden disagrees and says guns aren’t the issue. 

“We can have a conservation on public safety, but it’s probably not going to involve guns. There are other things we can do,” Rowden said. “Prosecutors aren’t prosecuting criminals the way they should be.”

No matter if your jersey is red or blue, sports betting seems to be on the agenda for either side. 

“We’ve got to get it done, we look foolish,” Rowden said. “I hear about it more at home than any other issue by a long shot.”

“I don’t understand how all these other vices can be legal and taxed but for some reason the Missouri legislature can’t wrap its head around legislating sports betting like all the other states surrounding us,” Rizzo said. 

When it comes to dysfunction and Republican infighting, Rizzo said he hopes the turnover inside the Capitol could lead to a more productive and successful session. 

“Last year the Republican majority had a tough time keeping the train on the tracks, so hopefully we will get a long a little better, and we can get some stuff done for the people of the State of Missouri,” Rizzo said. “The top priority is how we are going to spend billions of dollars in the surplus.”

Rowden also expects lawmakers to discuss initiative petition reform, foreign ownership of farmland and transgender athletes, all conversations that would be carried over from last session. 

“We were talking about the sports side of things last year, which I think is still a priority, but there’s even more happening on that front,” Rowden said. 

Session starts in Jefferson City on Jan. 4.