Midway through the legislative session, substantial ethics reform bills sit idle and modest ones have been further weakened by loopholes and exemptions. One measure to ban sitting lawmakers from simultaneously working as paid political consultants is a single Senate vote away from being sent to the governor. Legislative attempts to reinstate campaign contribution limits that Missouri voters first imposed in 1994 with nearly 74 percent support are stonewalled every year. Republican lawmakers repealed the caps in 2008. Since then, single donations of $50,000, $100,000 or even a $1 million have become common, giving wealthy donors and special interest groups considerable influence over elections. Missouri is one of twelve states without contribution limits.
The House of Representatives on Feb. 4 voted unanimously to strengthen state laws against child sex-trafficking by adding advertising a child for participation in a sex act as one the elements specifically prohibited by state law. House Bill 1562 is based on the federal Stop Advertising Victims of Sexual Exploitation Act, a 2014 law aimed at cracking down on websites and other outlets that feature advertisements for illegal sex acts. The bill advanced to the Senate.
When the 2016 legislative session began in January, all sides agreed that solving Missouri's transportation funding crisis was a top legislative priority. However, there has been little follow through. Annual construction awards by the MissouriDepartment of Transportation have dropped sharply from a high of nearly $1.37 billion in FY 2009 to $596 million in FY 2016. In the near future, MoDOT's revenue is expected to decline to the point where it won't have the $485 million annually required just to maintain the 34,000-mile state highway system. Missouri's 17-cent-per gallon fuel tax hasn't increased in 20 years and is among the lowest in the nation. Although a Senate committee has approved legislation (SB 623) to increase the state excise tax on gasoline by 1.5 cents per gallon and the tax on diesel by 3.5 cents per gallon, the full Senate has yet to hold a debate. House Republican leaders have ruled out any increase in the state's 17-cent per gallon fuel taxes but did allow debate on a proposal to generate transportation funding by selling corporate naming rights for state roads and bridges.
The House on March 10 passed the 13 appropriations bills that make up the $27.33 billion state operating budget for the 2017 fiscal year, which begins July 1. Fully funding the formula for distributing state money to local public school districts would require about $509 million in additional funding for FY 2017, according to state law. In the 11 years since the enactment of the current statutory formula for distributing K-12 education funding, it has never been fully funded. And now legislation (SB 586) has cleared the Senate and is pending in the House that would rework the formula so that instead of requiring $509 million to achieve full funding, it would take only $140 million. As passed out of the House local public schools would receive a $71 million increase in state funding - $14 million less than Gov. Nixon's proposed budget. The budget also calls for steep cuts to the University of Missouri System following the student protests last year at Mizzou. The bills now advance to the Senate, which will pass its own version of the budget.
Senate Joint Resolution 39 seeks to place a proposed constitutional amendment on the ballot that purports to protect clergy from participating in same-sex marriages and creates a constitutional right for businesses and corporate organizations that participate in public commerce (not just bakers and wedding photographers) to refuse to provide commercial services to same-sex couples. The 1st Amendment already protects members of the clergy from participating in same-sex services and it protects churches, which cannot be forced to open their doors for ceremonies that do not comport with their religious principles.
Indiana lost an estimated $60 million in hotel profits, tax revenue and other economic benefits due to cancelled conventions after enacting a law last year granting businesses the legal right to deny service to homosexuals. Ironically, after the 39 hour filibuster ended and SJR39 was adopted by the Missouri Senate, the House gave first-round approval to House Bill 1698, which would authorize up to $3 million in tax breaks in an attempt to increase the number of conventions held in Missouri.
Missouri law does not protect LGBT persons from legal discrimination in housing or employment. SJR 39 would override local LGBT protections in St. Louis, Kansas City, Columbia, Independence, Kirkwood and Ferguson. If approved by both chambers, SJR 39 would bypass the governor and would automatically go on the Nov. 8 ballot.
While legislation has been filed to rectify the failure of Missouri driver license to comply with the federal REAL ID law, it appears that the leadership will not address the problem this session. A Missouri driver's license will still be valid for airtravel through Jan. 22, 2018, but they are not acceptable for entrance to many federal facilities, including military bases.
When lawmakers reconvene on Tuesday, March 29, just seven weeks of session - and roughly 28 legislative days - will remain until the mandatory constitutional adjournment deadline at 6 p.m. on May 13.