Pace slow for first half of Mo. legislative session

Saturday, March 22, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- With many of the state's lawmakers facing elections this year and many of the chamber leaders term-limited, lawmakers moved at a casual pace during the first half of a legislative session that resumes Tuesday after a spring break.

"This has been a slow session. There's no doubt about that," said House Speaker Rod Jetton, who is among those departing. "And I kind of like it that way."

Just five bills -- all spending items that weren't covered by last year's budget -- have passed, and some extra spending still has not cleared the Senate. That means the House, which has yet to hold an afternoon session, could begin debating next year's budget as the Senate finishes with the last of this year's spending plan. The new budget must be approved by May 9.

Legislative leaders this session planned to consider cracking down on illegal immigrants, extending property tax relief and expanding health insurance coverage. Although the Senate passed a property tax bill, the other two issues have faced opposition.

The health insurance program is a priority for Gov. Matt Blunt, but the House members had concerns about it even before Blunt announced he wouldn't seek re-election.

Immigration measures, meanwhile, have faced opposition from business groups, which are concerned that lawmakers will add requirements and penalties on employers. They have persuaded some Republicans to look for ways to go after illegal immigration without affecting businesses.

For the third straight year, the House approved a bill requiring public colleges and universities certify to lawmakers that they aren't knowingly enrolling illegal immigrants. But no Senate immigration proposals have made it to floor debate.

Senate Majority Leader Charlie Shields said he's not sure exactly what that chamber is going to do on that issue. Shields, R-St. Joseph, said it might be possible to reach agreement on criminalizing the transport of illegal immigrants for work and banning those not legally in the U.S. from receiving some public benefits.

"We haven't gotten very far into the immigration issue, so I think that will take a while," he said.

But Shields' bill to repeal the state limits on campaign donations is moving. The Senate has approved it, and Jetton, R-Marble Hill, said he supports it. Lawmakers last year removed the caps, but they were reinstated after the state Supreme Court tossed out a law that included a provision removing the limit on donations.

Senate Democrats splintered over the issue, but House Minority Leader Paul LeVota said his caucus wants the caps to remain.

Lawmakers also plan to focus on updating state laws against harassment and stalking, increasing pay for teachers and changing how judges are selected. But debates about changing the state plan for picking judges and Jetton's bill to increase teacher pay have been confined to committees.

The measure that would broaden what constitutes harassment to include Internet or text messages has cleared the Senate, but it still must work its way through the House. The measure was prompted by the 2006 suicide of a St. Charles County teen who was teased on a social networking Web site.

Meanwhile, a proposed constitutional amendment barring court-ordered tax increases is likely to resurface after lawmakers return. The House was poised to pass the measure, but a vote was never taken because too many Republicans left early for their spring break, leaving supporters without the enough votes to pass it.

Legislation that has cleared the House includes a measure from LeVota, D-Independence, meant to prevent Kansas from raising taxes on Missourians who work across the border. Lawmakers last year repealed a state law that allows those who live in another state but work in Missouri to subtract what they pay in property taxes in their home state from the income on which they are taxed in Missouri. Lawmakers in Topeka have threatened to retaliate.

The Missouri bill, which hasn't been debated in the Senate, would apply only if the other state allows Missourians to do the same.

The session ends May 16.

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