Tort and tax reform and a right-to-work law are priorities – gasoline tax increases and a statewide prescription drug monitoring program [PDMP] less so – for the Missouri General Assembly this year, say a group of Republican St. Charles and St. Louis County legislators.
Meanwhile, elected officials from both counties said at the same meeting that their priorities are dealing with issues such as the rise in heroin use, tax breaks for development and how to attract new economic activity and provide more skilled workers.
The briefing was the third annual legislative update held on April 1 in Chesterfield by Progress 64 West, a nonprofit group that includes businesses and civic leaders from west St. Louis and St. Charles counties.
Former Missouri House Speaker Tim Jones moderated two panels – one with three legislators from St. Charles County and one from St. Louis County—and one that included St. Charles County Executive Steve Ehlmann and St. Louis County Councilman Mark Harder (District 7). Even through all are Republicans, not all their views were the same.
State Rep. Robert Onder Jr. (2nd District), and state representatives John Wiemann (District 103), Justin Hill (District 108) – all from St. Charles County—and state Rep. Kirk Mathews (District 110) all agreed that labor, tax and tort reform were major legislative priorities.
Onder also spoke about his controversial “religious freedom” bill, Senate Joint Resolution 39, passed by the Senate after a filibuster in March. A public hearing before a House committee concluded on April 13.
The bill proposes an amendment to the Missouri’s constitution that would be placed on the ballot that Onder said would provide protection of religious organizations and individuals from being penalized by the state because of their “sincere religious beliefs or practices concerning marriage between persons of the same sex.”
Onder said at the April 1 meeting that the bill was “a shield not a sword” and would not discriminate against the rights of individuals. Some large corporations have opposed the bill.
“Its big surprise somewhat that some in business community oppose this bill, it wouldn’t in any way effect Monsanto’s hiring policy,” Onder said. Some of the company’s biggest customers are farmers, who overwhelmingly support the bill, based on the endorsement by the Missouri Farm Bureau, he said.
Onder said the bill would give Missourians the “opportunity to endorse religious liberty.”
“I don’t think it will have any adverse effect to businesses,” he added. “Anytime this issue is considered in other states there is always a sky is falling attitude among some.”
Meanwhile, Wiemann said legislators are skeptical increasing the state’s gasoline tax to provide more funding for the Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT). Voters rejected an earlier increase in 2014 that “went down in flames,” he said.
“The state legislature does not have an appetite for passing a tax increase,” he said. Instead, other creative ways have to be found and other budget items need to be cut to provide more funding, he said.
Wiemann said there is money to be saved particularly from the $2 billion dollars that comes from state general revenues for Medicaid spending. “If we could save 10 percent of two billion dollars that’s $200 million that could go toward roads,” he said.
Several St. Charles County state legislators were cool toward legislation establishing a state PDMP to opiate-based drugs. Hill, a former narcotics officer with the O’Fallon, agreed that heroin was an epidemic but questioned whether a PDMP would work.
Onder, a physician, said efforts a few years ago to limit the purchase of Sudafed, an ingredient used in methamphetamine production, mostly were just an inconvenience for patients, he said.
“I think these big government feel-good programs that actually don’t do much in terms of actually solving the problems they were meant to address,” Onder said.
That position put the legislators a bit at odds with local county officials. The St. Louis County Council voted to establish a county PDMP because of lack of action by legislators. Ehlmann said St. Charles County officials are seriously studying what St. Louis County did and are reviewing joining the county in the effort.
Hardin said there is good news in the county particularly the growth in new jobs and development with the expansions of Bunge and Monsanto in west St. Louis County.
“On the flip of that, were looking at a shortage of skilled labor it’s going to hit I think a critical mass real soon if all these projects coming on line,” he said. Young people have to be encouraged to go into the trades, he said. “We can’t build these big projects with English majors,” he said.
Ehlmann said St. Charles County is questioning some economic development, particularly proposed Maryland Heights’ development in the Missouri River flood plain and the use of tax increment financing or TIFs to provide tax breaks for retail development. Some TIFs take tax funds away from taxing jurisdictions and create few of the kind of jobs that local officials want, he said.
The situation in Ferguson has also created an image problem for the region. “I tell (St. Louis County Executive) Steve Stenger that my office is a lot closer to Ferguson than his is,” he said.
“I think the biggest lesson of Ferguson is very clear in that is you can’t have all your poor people living in one part of the county,” Ehlmann said. St. Charles County has avoided that issue because it has six municipalities as opposed to 91 as in St. Louis County. The six cities have professional police departments and don’t rely on tickets and fines for revenue. Crime issues and education often become a neighborhood rather than city or district problem, he said.
Yet Ehlmann wasn’t averse to having a little fun with the audience – alluded to a current but unnamed presidential candidate. “I’ve got a very important announcement to make,” he said as he began his comments. The county has been growing “like crazy” and that growth has put a tremendous strain on the county’s finances, he said.
“Because of that, I’m here to announce today that we are going to build a 10- foot-high wall between St. Louis County and St. Charles County and we’re going to make St. Louis County pay for it. And it’s going to be huge, real huge,” he said.
Ehlmann then added, “April fool.”