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Opinion: Evaluating state legislative session at halfway point

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The Missouri legislature's weeklong break that began March 15 is a good time to assess where the General Assembly may head in the second half of its annual session.

This year, taxes, school choice, voter rights and COVID-19 promise to be dominating issues.

On taxes, the legislature left for spring break with eclectic decisions by the Republican majority.

The Senate passed a per-gallon motor fuel tax increase to improve highways, but the legislative body added a provision that you can get a refund of the higher tax if you're willing to go through the paperwork to file a claim. That essentially makes it a voluntary contribution.

Both the House and Senate approved measures to impose a sales tax on more of your online sales from out-of-state merchants. But they included an income tax cut that could be deeper than the revenue gains from the online tax, according to legislative staff estimates.

Republicans, including the governor, have backed subjecting more online purchases to state sales taxes as a protection for local Missouri merchants facing increased competition from tax-free online services during the COVID-19 era.

COVID-19 also has been cited by Republicans for expanding school choice because of public school restrictions on in-person classes. Proposals pending in the legislature's final weeks include tax credits for parents to send their kids to private schools and to provide rights for students to transfer to other school district schools.

This issue has a long history of dividing Republicans because of strong rural GOP support for their local public school districts.

One COVID-19 issue involves the governor's proposal to protect businesses and health care workers from lawsuits involving COVID-19.

Another major COVID-19 issue for the legislature's final weeks involves restricting local government health boards from imposing restrictions or requirements to deal with the pandemic. But some of the storm over that issue may have been lessened by House approval of a scaled-down approach that focuses on limiting how long restrictions can last and giving city and county elected governing bodies authority over health orders.

The GOP focus on voting after the national 2020 GOP losses also will be a major issue.

Republicans are renewing their efforts to restore the requirement for a photo ID to vote that Missouri's Supreme Court struck down. Other voting issues would make it tougher for Missourians to put on the ballot proposals to change state law or the Constitution.

These proposals come in the aftermath of recent successful ballot campaigns on issues like lobbyist restrictions, Medicaid expansion and a minimum wage increase that had stalled in the GOP-controlled legislature.

There are, of course, the usual ideological and partisan issues that so often spark Senate filibusters in the second half of the legislative session.

This year, they include liability lawsuit protections for businesses and expanded firearm rights including allowing concealed weapons on some forms of public transportation, such as buses.

Congressional redistricting was supposed to have been another partisan food-fight, but the U.S. Census Bureau delay in reporting census data makes it unlikely the legislature will be able to deal with the issue in the regular session.

As always, the budget will be a major issue with the state Constitution imposing a deadline one week before the end of the session. However, the budget might be a bit easier this year because of higher revenue collection increase estimates than last year when the financial impact of COVID-19 forced deep cuts in state spending.

But funding for Medicaid expansion approved by Missouri voters in 2020 could be contentious.

As my colleague Rudi Keller has reported, House Budget Committee Chair Cody Smith, R-Carthage, has put Medicaid expansion funding into a separate bill rather than including it in the normal bill that covers Medicaid.

That could make it easier to kill Medicaid expansion funding without endangering the much larger budget for other Medicaid and other social services programs. Smith also has filed a proposed constitutional amendment that would make Medicaid expansion subject to legislative appropriation.

As we've seen with the Kansas City Chiefs, the second half can produce surprises.

Phill Brooks has been a statehouse reporter since 1970, making him the dean of the Missouri statehouse press corps. He is director of Missouri Digital News and an emeritus faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism.

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