JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) -- The Missouri Legislature convened its 2011 session on Wednesday with lots of new faces, a looming budget shortfall and a pledge from the largest Republican majority in decades to make quick progress on a pro-business agenda.
On opening day, the list of business priorities was long and varied: a cap on state franchise taxes affecting big businesses, a moratorium on new regulations and fees affecting small businesses; more restrictions on lawsuits by employees claiming injuries and discrimination; a tweak of business tax incentives; and a proposed ban on union-only work places.
Looming even larger was a projected budget shortfall of several hundred million dollars for the next year -- something that Republican legislative leaders and Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon have promised to tackle through government cuts without raising taxes.
As the first order of business, the newly elected lawmakers took an oath to uphold the constitution. Nearly half of the 163 House members and more than one-third of the senators are new -- the result of term limits and Republican gains in the November elections. Republicans hold a 106-57 majority over Democrats in the House and a 26-7 majority in the Senate with one vacancy.
The second order of business for legislators was to choose leaders. Rep. Steven Tilley, of Perryville, who had been nominated by his Republican colleagues more than a year ago, was elected House speaker by voice vote. Sen. Rob Mayer, of Dexter, was unanimously elected Senate president pro tem -- affirming the results of a drawing of lots conducted in a closed-door Republican caucus this fall.
Mayer cited federal labor statistics indicating that more 280,000 of Missouri's roughly 3 million-person work force have remained unemployed for the past year and a half.
"Our state is facing serious challenges," Mayer said in a speech to colleagues. "It is the third budget year in a row where we will begin with a budget shortfall. We need to get Missourians back to work in lasting and growing industries that pay well and offer benefits."
Mayer pledged passage of legislation capping the business franchise tax at $2 million -- an amount currently higher than what any business is paying but which he said would provide certainty for large businesses to expand without fear of additional taxation. He also pledged passage of legislation making it harder for workers to win discrimination and whistleblower lawsuits and new restrictions on work place injury lawsuits.
In a move that could prove particularly contentious for union-funded Democrats, Mayer pledged passage of legislation "making Missouri a right to work state," in which union membership and dues could not be required as a condition of employment.
Tilley laid out an agenda that included a moratorium on new regulations, fees and taxes for small businesses, changes for teacher tenure and drug testing for people receiving cash welfare payments. He said he wants the House to approve at least three-quarters of its priorities within the next 50 days. Besides legislation, Tilley said he also plans to require every state department to submit plans for reducing its costs and was ready to give the House Budget Committee subpoena power to compel testimony during investigations into possible waste and fraud.
"This year we will prove to the citizens of this state that government can and will tighten their belts and can and will do more with less," Tilley said in a speech to the House.
Nixon's administration has estimated Missouri faces a $500 million shortfall for the budget year that begins July 1. Mayer, a former Senate appropriations committee chairman, estimated that shortfall was between $300 million and $500 million.
Either way, that leaves little room for new spending and foreshadows another round of cuts for a state government that already has seen revenues decline by more than $1 billion during the past couple years, reducing Missouri's money to levels barely above those of 2005.
Despite that, Mayer said senators will work to avoid cuts to public K-12 schools. He said the goal is to hold funding at the current year's level, which still would fall between $230 million and $255 million short of what's called for under the Missouri law that distributes money to schools.
Among other things, Senate Majority Leader Tom Dempsey, of St. Peters, said Republicans would back legislation requiring a government-issued photo identification when voting and would support greater choice of schools, perhaps through an expansion of charter schools or open-enrollment among public school districts.
Lawmakers also are expected to debate legislation scrapping Missouri's income tax in favor of a higher sales tax applied to a greater number of products and services. The so-called "fair tax" was backed by some of the roughly 200 tea party and patriot group participants who rallied Tuesday at the Capitol. But Dempsey said the plan still needs some work.
House Democratic Leader Mike Talboy, of Kansas City, urged lawmakers to promote education and ensure the state's workers are protected.
"Republicans now have the numbers in the House to do whatever they want, and believe me I'm envious," Talboy said. "For our part, House Democrats will do our best to make sure we hold the majority accountable but be willing to work to find solutions."
Associated Press writer Chris Blank contributed to this report.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)