The Missouri State Legislature opened the 2016 session Wednesday with new leadership and several big issues to tackle over the next few months.
2016 started with House Speaker Todd Richardson at the helm after John Diehl admitted to exchanging sexually suggestive texts with an intern and resigned in 2015. That incident, among others that could be seen as ethics violations, has sparked discussions on lawmaker ethics for the 2016 session.
The Associated Press reports Richardson said changes to ethics policies are a top priority.
“This institution should not and will not be defined by the actions of a few,” said Richardson, a Poplar Bluff Republican. He added that while there is no rule or law “that can make our imperfect process perfect, we can, and we must, work to improve the environment in the people’s Capitol.”
District 48 Rep. Dave Muntzel, R-Boonville, told the Democrat a similar sentiment.
“The general public needs to understand what took place in the Capitol was only done by a couple of people and I would venture to say 98 percent of legislative members are not guilty of wrongdoing and goings on,” he said. “My personal beliefs, it should be 100 percent but that’s not the case.
“Because we see so much publicity for these incidents, in order to build confidence back in the minds of people who don’t realize it’s just a few people that get involved in that, it has stimulated some need for ethics reforms. What those are going to be, they’re working on that; it’s going to be a major issue you’ll probably hear about in the next 30 days.”
According to AP, proposed changes to ethics policies include banning lobbyist gifts to lawmakers and not allowing lawmakers to immediately become lobbyists after leaving public office. Measures to cap campaign contribution limits appear less likely to pass.
AP reports Nixon and legislative leaders of both parties have said ethics changes and a way to pay for repairs to the state’s aging roads and bridges are needed this year. Both issues have been discussed for years in the Legislature with little success.
A bill from Sen. Doug Libla, R-Poplar Bluff, proposes raising the gasoline tax by 1.5 cents per gallon and the diesel tax by 3.5 cents to help with transportation funding. District 51 Rep. Dohrman, R-La Monte, didn’t say he was for or against the proposal, but that he thinks a tax increase should be put to a vote of the people, although he “doubts if it’s a one-session solution that we eventually come to.”
“I think to me, (infrastructure funding) is a priority issue. Roads are certainly primary function of government,” he said. “… My stance is that any proposal we have about tax increases should go to a vote of the people because it’s their money. … Anything we would do would be band-aid fixes anyway; I’d rather have a good comprehensive plan and put it to a vote of the people.”
Muntzel agreed that funding MoDOT is a top priority, but didn’t offer specific ideas on how to solve the problem. When asked about Libla’s proposal, he said, “I would be in support of it, but not 100 percent until I see the language of the bill. That is one source of funding the highways and bridges, that’s something we need to seriously look at.”
The Legislature could also discuss the issue with the Real ID act, which will cause Missourians to not be able to use their driver’s license to enter federal buildings such as the White House and military bases, effective Jan. 10.
“Hopefully Congress would pass some changes; we had an issue with this two years ago and found out despite what the wishes of the Missouri Legislature were, the Department of Revenue was complying with the Real ID Act, then giving away other information,” Dohrman said. “People have a real problem with their privacy being invaded in Missouri and I understand that, I’m part of the privacy caucus here. I don’t know what’s going to happen or what we can do, but I’m certainly for protecting people’s information.”
Muntzel said he and other legislators have been asking why the Real ID Act is needed. Like Dohrman, he also noted that Missourians are concerned about loss of privacy. However, he brought up the issue of voter ID requirements.
“It doesn’t make sense if the federal government wants everyone to have a special ID to get in a federal building or board a plane and you have to have driver’s license to drive and a specific ID to do just about anything, but don’t have to have a positive voter ID to vote,” he said. “That was a big issue last year and I think it’s going to continue to be a big issue again this year.”
The Senate also is under new Republican leadership. Sen. Ron Richard, of Joplin, took over after former Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey resigned in August to work at a St. Louis-based lobbying firm, although he does not lobby in Missouri.
AP reports the House also swore-in three new members picked in special elections because of open seats, including the vacancy created by Diehl’s departure; that suburban St. Louis district seat is being taken by Republican Dean Plocher, of Des Peres. Two new Democratic representatives — Rory Rowland of Independence and Daron McGee of Kansas City — also were sworn-in.
While the special elections meant Democrats picked up a seat in the House, Republicans in that chamber and the Senate still have veto-proof majorities. So, if GOP members stick together, they can undo any vetoes by Gov. Jay Nixon.
Nicole Cooke can be reached at 660-826-1000 ext. 1482 or @NicoleRCooke.