General Assembly to consider taxation, drugs this session

The Maneater takes a look at bills up for vote in 2014.

Tax cuts

A state representative’s tax relief proposal comes fresh off the heels of conflict surrounding similar legislation last year.

But this time, that representative says the chances of his bill are looking up.

House Bill 1253, or the Broad-Based Tax Relief Act, would implement cuts to state tax on business income that could eventually reduce the current business tax to just 50 percent of the tax rate. Tax revenue each year after the bill’s passage would be measured against the gains made in 2012; if that year’s gains match or exceed those of 2012, the tax will be reduced by 10 percent, continuing each year until it tops out at 50 percent.

The bill was born from the ashes of last year’s House Bill 253, which featured the same tax component and numbers as its successor but came under fire for removing tax exemptions on textbooks and prescription drugs. It was vetoed by Gov. Jay Nixon in June, but House republicans attempted to override that veto when the General Assembly reconvened in September.

The override, after lengthy debate and a rally at MU against the bill, failed when the House voted 94-67 against Nixon’s decision — 15 votes short of the necessary two-thirds majority.

To State Rep. T.J. Berry, R-Kearney, who sponsored both bills, a lower business tax rate would make Missouri more competitive in securing business contracts from neighboring states. A less aggressive tax policy, Berry said, means faster job growth.

“The business owners, the corporations are who employ people,” Berry said. “And if they get very defensive, or find another environment that is better, they will move. I believe Missouri is a great place to live, and I don’t want to see graduates … moving out of our state. They’ve got to have jobs.”

HB 1253’s sibling piece of legislation, House Bill 1254 — also drafted by Berry — would provide tax amnesty to Missourians, allowing delinquents to pay back their debts in full without penalty fees. Berry said the approximate $70 million gained from an amnesty program would make up for revenue losses in the first year of HB 1253’s implementation.

State Rep. Chris Kelly, D-Columbia, said he thinks Berry’s legislation is a step up from his attempt last year to cut taxes.

“Last year, (House Bill 253) had two huge problems: One, that it was incredibly badly drafted. It was a disaster. And second, it cost way too much money, and all that money would have come out of university, secondary and elementary education,” Kelly said. “This year, I think that he’s looking at a more modest proposal, and I think that there are some ways we can move ahead there if we get the right combination of revenue and cuts.”

Higher education funding

A new model for university funding, if passed, would go into effect next year.

Senate Bill 492 would provide a performance-based mold for the disbursement of state funds to institutions of higher education. The Missouri Department of Higher Education would choose sets of performance measures, by which four-year universities’ future funds — though not funds already earmarked by past and present appropriations — would be determined.

Under the bill’s terms, 10 percent of each institution’s total appropriation would be divided into two parts: The vast majority would be based on the chosen performance measures, and the remainder could be used by some universities to address inequitable state funding.

The bill’s sponsor, State Sen. David Pearce, R-Warrensburg, said that a concrete plan for funding allocation makes sense, as that allocation was previously determined by a governor’s budget — and therefore, Pearce said, partisan politics.

Drug policy

For Missouri marijuana activists, 2014 holds promise. This legislative session, three proposals could make state drug policy history.

The first: decriminalization, sponsored by State Rep. Rory Ellinger, D-St. Louis. Ellinger’s House Bill 1325 would make possession of fewer than 35 grams of marijuana a statewide ticketable offense, as opposed to the state’s current policy that allows the sentencing of possessing offenders.

The caveat: Offenders can’t have committed a felony in the last 10 years or have committed a separate misdemeanor in the same case that led to their ticket for possession.

Ellinger’s other proposal would establish a pilot program for medical marijuana, following the guidelines set by other states with long-running medical cannabis policies. Under Ellinger’s plan, it would still be illegal for users to consume cannabis in public, drive under the influence or provide the drug to children. Users would also have to qualify for a prescription from a licensed physician.

Yet both of Ellinger’s measures are, to Kelly, only spot fixes. That’s why Kelly decided to sponsor the full, statewide legalization of marijuana.

“I co-sponsored and supported it last year, and I think that medical marijuana and decriminalization are all steps in the right direction,” Kelly said. “But why not actually fix the problem, rather than just pry around the edges?”

Kelly had toyed with the idea of full legalization last year, appearing at a panel with Ellinger and Columbia-based legalization activist and attorney Dan Viets, but he was unsure until now of whether the legalization bill would have enough traction to make a dent in the General Assembly’s legislative agenda.

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