Missouri lawmakers return to Jefferson City Monday for the last eight weeks of the 2018 legislative session — a session Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard, R-Joplin, said "has been very successful" so far.
But some controversy could come soon, as Richard — who chairs the Gubernatorial Appointments Committee — plans to ask the Senate to consider at least one of Gov. Eric Greitens' five appointees to the State Board of Education.
State Board of Education controversy
Their appointments are controversial because the five people — including Marvin "Sonny" Jungmeyer, of Russellville, a former member of the Cole R-1/Russellville School Board — originally were named last year while the Legislature wasn't in session, and voted in December to fire then-Education Commissioner Margie Vandeven.
Greitens had removed two appointees he previously had named to the board, who said they wouldn't vote immediately to fire Vandeven.
The efforts to fire the head of Missouri's Elementary and Secondary Education Department — who is a member of the governor's Cabinet but is hired and fired by the State Board, not the governor — has angered several state senators.
They have promised to vote against all five of Greitens' appointees and to filibuster any effort to approve their appointments.
Under state law, if the Senate rejects a governor's nomination, that person never can be appointed again to that position in state government.
And at least one senator, Rob Schaaf, R-St. Joseph, has argued all five of Greitens' appointees should be blocked from serving again ever on the State Board of Education.
Richard told reporters March 15, as lawmakers were leaving Jefferson City for last week's spring break: "I'm going to take them up one at a time.
"If there's going to be one filibuster, that's probably going to leave the decision about what's going to happen to the others (up to the governor, who) can make the appropriate decision" about whether to withdraw their appointments or not.
He added: "I've asked the governor to withdraw them, and I've asked the members if they're withdrawn, to accept the letter (of withdrawal).
"The governor doesn't want to withdraw them. Right now, members wouldn't want to receive the letter, and believe that (the appointees) should be held accountable for their actions."
Right now, the State Board has only three active members, which isn't enough to take any official action.
Richard said there's still plenty of time to work out some solution.
Higher Education funding
He said another major issue facing the Senate and its relationship with Greitens is higher education, where the governor proposed a 10 percent cut in the state's budget for Missouri's colleges and universities — about $68 million total.
Although the House hasn't passed the budget plan yet for the Senate to consider, Richard said: "I'd like to make sure (Greitens) understands the issue with the dire straits" higher education faces.
Senate Appropriations Chairman Dan Brown, R-Rolla, said: "I made it very clear early on that we could put the $68 million (back) in the budget."
The House is considering a proposal to restore only about $30 million to higher education, and Brown said: "It could be a point of contention. I'm anxious to see what they do on the floor."
He sees Missouri's colleges and universities at a "crisis funding" point.
"They've really been playing catch-up to the point where they're losing money," he said, "and increasing student enrollment just increases what they lose — they can't make it up.
"We have to give them some relief, some how."
Other budget issues
Brown expects the House will send the Senate the state budget in the coming weeks, and overall, he said, "I think we're in better shape writing this budget for 2018-19 than we thought we were going to be a year ago. We thought (then) there were going to be some pretty big holes."
But some increased federal funding, especially for the CHIPs (children's health program), will help, he said.
Brown also is cautious about cutting taxes.
"If you're an advocate of cutting taxes, you'd better be an advocate of cutting services," he said. "And I don't find that politicians — when it gets right down to it — want to cut services too much.
"Therefore, I think it's extremely important that when we talk about tax cuts or put in triggers (to cause) tax cuts — how are you going to make up that difference?
"And if you can't do that, then I'm not too interested in the conversation."
When he's not in the Legislature, Brown is a practicing veterinarian.
"I have all walks of people walk through my door in my veterinary clinic," he noted. "I have yet, in 41 years of practice, had one person complain about state income taxes.
"I've had a hell of a bunch of them complain about federal income taxes."
As the Senate's majority leader, Mike Kehoe, R-Jefferson City, controls the flow of debate.
During the last half of the legislative session, he said, "There are plenty of important bills on the (Senate debate) calendar, and plenty of bills coming over from the House.
"I think it's way too early to say anything is in jeopardy."
He wants to see lawmakers pass more economic development and lawsuit reform bills, to make the state more attractive to business development.
And he thinks the Legislature still may approve a tax reform measure that could result in more tax cuts, even as the law passed a few years ago just is beginning to take effect.
Kehoe supports efforts to increase the state's fuels tax for road-and-bridge improvements.
"We were in a hole on transportation funding before President Trump's administration started, and now, with (the president's) new ideas on infrastructure improvements, it's going to be even more important for a state like Missouri to have the resources it takes to make the federal matches."
Lawmakers have debated — but have not passed — a tax reform bill that includes a 10-cents per gallon fuels tax increase over a five-year period.
Because the increase is in small increments, that proposal would not have to be approved in a statewide vote.
Kehoe noted the last time the state raised its fuels tax was in 1992, when John Ashcroft was governor.
That was a phased-in, 6-cent increase that ended in 1996 with the current 17-cents per gallon tax.
Some lawmakers also have proposed fuels tax increases that would go to a popular vote.
"Elected officials are responsible to the constituents who voted them in," Kehoe said, "and if (a fuels tax increase) goes out as part of a tax package, I'm sure (lawmakers) will be prepared to talk about that in their districts."
Kehoe and Richard said the leadership of both the Senate and House meet regularly.
"We meet so often, and we talk about what we're doing so much, just to make sure the function of government runs," Kehoe said, "that we really just don't have surprises with each other."