Dangers and Opportunities in the 2020 Legislative Session: Our Advocacy for Justice Will Make a Difference

The 2020 Legislative Session begins on Wednesday, January 8, and adjourns on Friday, May 15, with a Legislative Spring Break from March 23 to 27. Many factors go into every Legislative Session, some that press on the accelerator and others that push on the brakes. Here are some of the factors that we expect to see at play in 2020 and a discussion of some priorities that we will try to shepherd through the lawmaking process.

It is an election year, and conventional wisdom is that less gets done when policymakers are in candidate-mode. There is a temptation to use floor debate time to get photos to go on campaign mailers instead of lawmaking, with all 163 House seats and half of the 34 Senate seats up for grabs or to focus on the soundbite that can get into the media. Legislators who plan to run for re-election may be especially cautious about how they position themselves during the filing period when candidates declare their intention to run in the August primary. The first day of the filing period is February 25, and it closes on March 31, and there is generally buzz in the Capitol Building each day around “Did you get a primary opponent?” until filing closes.

Still there are topics that are bound to emerge in debate – sometimes due to a Constitutional mandate (like the passage of the state’s budget, the only job that the General Assembly absolutely has to complete by a specific constitutional deadline) and sometimes due to “culture wars.” (Guns rights, reproductive health, the acceptable composition of a married couple, and who gets to use which bathroom have been debated repeatedly in recent sessions.)

The Budget Committee is the largest of the House Committees, and this committee works very hard to stretch Missouri’s outdated, unfair, and inadequate revenue system just as far as it can go. Missouri is sometimes called “The Forty-Something State” because we often measure among the bottom ten states on public investment in a wide range of items that relate to our health and welfare.

Solving this is a daunting task. Voters in our state helped to create our repeated budget woes by passing the Hancock Amendment in 1980. This established that total state revenues cannot exceed 5.64% of Missourians’ personal income or tax dollars have to be returned to Missouri income tax payers. This provision was triggered more than once in the 1990’s, which set off a flurry of tax cuts and credits. A second revenue-limiting amendment was passed in 1996, forcing the General Assembly to take most revenue-producing ideas to the voters for approval.

These constitutional amendments make increasing tax revenue in our state very difficult, but our General Assembly has repeatedly cut taxes over the past two decades. According to the most recent audit from May 2018, we are now $3.9 billion below the point at which Hancock refunds would be triggered. This leads to a significant lack of investment in mental health, early childhood education, affordable housing, and many other essential programs and services.

Since the Blue Ribbon Panel on the Missouri Hyperloop released its report in October 2019, we may see some debate on this transportation innovation that is enthusiastically supported by Speaker of the House Elijah Haahr. The high speed Hyperloop would reduce travel time between Kansas City and St. Louis to 30 minutes and would make us “the gateway to the world,” according to Speaker Haahr.

In 2020, it is likely that we will see a strong attempt made to roll back some of the provisions that the people of Missouri voted into existence in November, 2018, with the passage of Amendment 1, the CLEAN package of campaign ethics reforms. With the approval of more than 62 percent of Missouri voters, this ballot measure radically changed how the Senate and House of Representatives districts are redrawn after each Census. New regulations were also imposed relating to former lawmakers and legislative staff becoming lobbyists, gifts to lawmakers from lobbyists, campaign activities by legislative candidates and public access to legislative records. The redistricting provisions are the hottest topic though, and we will need to join our allies in efforts to preserve the non-partisan process that we demanded through our votes.

The Missouri Chamber of Commerce has again named tort reform as a top priority. Called business-friendly legislation by some, others say tort reform simply further stacks the deck so that those with limited resources have even less ability to take wealthy individuals or corporations to court or to prevail in a trial. 

Other items that we have seen on multiple lists of likely topics for this Session include charter schools, a statewide Prescription Drug Monitoring Program, sports betting, and internet sales tax. It is also likely that we will have to play defense on attempts to impose work-hour-tracking on safety net programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, commonly known as food stamps) and Medicaid.

We hope that the appointment of Jeff Earl as Gov. Parson’s new legislative director bodes well for the prospects for continued bipartisan criminal justice reform. Earl was responsive to our visits and communications on criminal justice matters in 2019 and formerly worked at the Department of Corrections, so he has expertise in this area.

Empower Missouri’s Priorities

Below are some of the items that we will be pressing to move forward during this Session. Please find more detailed outlines of each of these priority areas in other articles of this newsletter.

Criminal Justice Reform

We will continue to convene the ideologically diverse Smart Sentencing Coalition to look for ways to reform our criminal justice system that provide lower cost community alternatives to incarceration while still protecting public safety. Last year this was an area in which we saw enthusiastic bipartisan cooperation in many cases. Several of our priorities passed in 2019, but we have unfinished business on these items that we hope to complete:

  • Offering older prisoners a chance for a parole hearing – prisoners over 50 seldom re-offend upon release
  • Improving employability of prisoners through the “Fresh Start Act” (to make it more possible to keep or obtain a professional license) and ending laws that bar those with felony convictions from working in establishments that sell or serve alcohol or lottery tickets
  • Protecting children from systematic denial of representation by narrowing when their right to counsel may be waived
  • Modernizing Missouri’s outdated and medically inaccurate HIV policies
  • Expanding expungement to additional classifications of crime and, where possible, making it automatic through “clean slate” legislation
  • Strengthening accountability in the Vehicle Stops Report statute and tightening civil assets forfeiture laws that have allowed law enforcement to seize property, even when no charges are filed

Protecting and Strengthening Our Food and Cash Assistance Safety Net

We will continue to convene our Food Security Coalition to reduce the harms done by hunger in Missouri. We will work toward the following goals:

  • Protecting access to emergency income and/or services needed in times of economic stress (SNAP, WIC, TEFAP, TANF, and Medicaid)
  • Strengthening the delivery of these safety net programs – by repealing harmful portions of Senate Bill 24 (from 2015)
  • Increasing the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefit (which has not gone up since 1991 – this will be a “heavy lift” because all federal TANF block grant funds are presently committed to other good causes with constituencies that will fight to keep that funding – and our state budget is inadequate to meet all needs, as described earlier
  • Building support for additional programs to reduce food insecurity – such as the WIC farmers’ market voucher, Breakfast After the Bell

Affordable Housing

We continue to convene an Affordable Housing Coalition which has these goals:

  • Adding a cost of living adjustment to the funding mechanism for the Missouri Housing Trust Fund
  • Re-instating the Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) program
  • Passing robust reform of the Tax Increment Finance (TIF) statutes
  • Protecting tenants in the rental process, including limiting harm during eviction proceedings

Stay Informed Through #UDAS Calls

With so many dangers and opportunities impacting communities that live in poverty, it will be important that you respond quickly when we call you to action. One way to be prepared is to join our Under the Dome and Around the State webinars for social justice advocates. These happen twice per month during Legislative Session, and the first one is on Thursday, January 16, at 1 p.m. Sign up for the call at this link, and if a last minute emergency causes you to miss a call, we have upgraded our system so that you may now watch the call online later.

Your Voice Matters

Your advocacy during the 2020 Legislative Session can truly matter to the most vulnerable families in Missouri. Watch for our Weekly Perspective columns on Fridays and for special alerts when quick action is critical. Together we can be a force for social justice in Missouri.

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