Lawmakers begin 2010 session with budget, ethics on priority list
Legislators in the Missouri House and Senate kicked off the 2010 legislative session Jan. 6 with pledges to maneuver through the difficult budget situation and focus on ethics reform. Lawmakers assembled at a time when state unemployment hovers around 9.5 percent and the state faces an estimated 6.9 percent decline in revenue over last fiscal year. The resignation of several lawmakers regarding ethics issues also prompted both chambers to take steps to make ethics reform a priority in the coming weeks.
In photo at right, House Speaker Ron Richard pounds the gavel to begin the 2010 session Wednesday. (Photo courtesy Tim Brommel, House Communications Office)
Higher education budget challenges are buffered by an agreement reached with the governor to fund higher education at about 95 percent of current-year operating levels in exchange for another year of no tuition increases for in-state undergraduate students. See related article  for more details.
Senate President Pro Tem Charlie Shields (R-St. Joseph) presented his goals for 2010 in his final opening day address  by discussing the need for ethics reform, including a ban on legislators receiving contributions during session and the need for an independent investigator. He also addressed the challenges the FY11 state budget will present, charging the Senate to work in a bipartisan manner to set the right priorities, as well as emphasizing the need to plan for the future, citing the creation of his 2020 committees that are reviewing crucial issues like economic development, health care and education.
From right: House minority leader Paul LeVota and Reps. J.C. Kuessner and Terry Swinger address the media during a press conference following the opening day session. (Photo courtesy Tim Brommel, House Communications Office)
House Speaker Ron Richard (R-Joplin) also gave his final opening address . He pledged to focus on ethics reform and announced formation of the Special Standing Committee on Government Accountability and Ethics Reform. Chaired by Rep. Kevin Wilson (R-Neosho) and Rep. Sally Faith (R-St. Charles), the committee will be the center of debate on several bills already filed that make changes in ethics laws. Proposals to ban lobbyist gifts, establish campaign limits on certain individuals or corporations doing business with the state, and tighten regulations for current legislators also doing political consulting have been introduced, as well as several bills to reinstate campaign contribution limits. House lawmakers from both parties agreed some form of ethics reform likely will be approved, although reinstatement of campaign contribution limits continues to be controversial.
Both chambers also may debate a proposal to eliminate the state income tax in favor of a modified sales tax plan. Similar bills were considered last year.
State leaders agree on consensus revenue estimate
Gov. Jay Nixon, House Budget Chair Allen Icet (R-Wildwood) and Senate Appropriations Chair Rob Mayer (R-Dexter) announced an agreement on the state’s projected revenues through the end of FY10 and for FY11.
For the remainder of FY10, total revenue collections are estimated at $6.9 billion, a 6.4 percent decline over FY09. Leaders are predicting modest growth in FY11 of $7.2 billion, or approximately a 3 percent increase in revenue collections. This is still $780 million below revenue collections in FY08, and even with a positive estimate for the upcoming fiscal year, balancing the budget will present a challenge for legislators and the governor.
Commonly known as the consensus revenue estimate, the figures are determined by a bipartisan group of state budget experts in order to provide a guideline for the Governor and legislative leaders as they build Missouri’s budget.
Nixon is scheduled to deliver his State of the State and Budget Address Jan. 20.
University of Missouri to focus on five key committees as session begins
Key higher education issues will come before committees with new leadership in the Senate as the 2010 session gets under way. The Senate Appropriations Committee is now chaired by Sen. Rob Mayer (R-Dexter), and Sen. Kurt Schaefer (R-Columbia) has been named vice-chair. This committee is the primary budget writing panel for the upper chamber. On the policy side, education-related issues will come before the Senate Education Committee and its new chairman, Sen. David Pearce (R-Warrensburg).
House committees dealing with higher education issues will include the House Budget Committee again chaired by Rep. Allen Icet (R-Wildwood) and the House Appropriations-Education Committee again chaired by Rep. Mike Thomson (R-Maryville). These committees normally complete their work on the budget by late March or early April. The House Higher Education Committee chaired by Rep. Gayle Kingery (R-Poplar Bluff) will continue to review policy issues related to higher education.
January will be the busiest month for bill filing as lawmakers draft and introduce proposals and committees prepare to debate. Go here  to see a list of House bills filed or here  to see a similar list of Senate bills filed.
Congress concludes busy month with consideration of health care, appropriations measures
The House and Senate worked until the Christmas holiday to pass both the FY10 appropriations bills and health care legislation. Both the House and Senate passed H.R. 3288, the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2010, which funded the Departments of Veterans Affairs, Health and Human Services, and Education among others, but it did not include money for Defense. A separate funding measure for that department was taken up later in the month and included a controversial increase in the debt limit. Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill joined the Senate Republicans, including Missouri Sen. Kit Bond, in voting against the measure. The president signed the $446.8 billion consolidated appropriations measure into law Dec. 16. The final appropriations bill, H.R. 3326, the Defense Appropriations Act, was passed and signed into law Dec. 19.
The passing of the annual appropriations bills was extended this year so the Senate could continue to debate H.R. 3590, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2009. In the first Christmas Eve vote in 35 years, the Senate passed its version of the health care overhaul 60-to-39 on a party-line vote. It was the 25th straight day of debate on the legislation in the Senate. Only one Republican supported the bill that the House approved last month 220 to 215, and no Republicans backed the Senate version. The Senate bill would require most Americans to have health insurance, add 15 million people to the Medicaid rolls and subsidize private coverage for low- and middle-income people at a cost of $871 billion over 10 years, according to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). Additionally, the CBO estimates the bill would provide coverage to 31 million uninsured people, but still leave 23 million uninsured in 2019. One-third of those remaining uninsured would be illegal immigrants. The Senate and House versions are vastly different as the House version contained a public insurance option and the Senate version did not.
House and Senate leadership are working informally and will not observe the formal conference committee procedure to craft a compromise bill. This bill will have a straight up and down vote by both the House and Senate. Leadership hopes to have a bill passed and sent to the president before the annual State of the Union address at the end of January. At the very latest, House and Senate leadership have promised the president a bill to sign by the first of February.