The OI Interview: Missouri House Speaker Elijah Haahr Part Two

(Part One of our interview was published yesterday.)

Ozarks Independent: When you look at the list of states with problems with opioid abuse, Missouri usually ranks near the top of the list. I know you wanted to get the Prescription Drug Monitoring Program in place, but it didn’t happen this time around. What is it going to take to get it across the finish line and onto the Governor’s desk?

Speaker Elijah Haahr: The interesting thing is that a lot of counties have taken it upon themselves to do this so a vast majority of Missouri is already covered by a Prescription Drug Monitoring database. I think somewhere IU read that 75 to 80 percent of the state is already covered by a county or municipal ordinance.

We are going to get to a level where the counties have done so much, that members of the State Senate are going to say “we want to have more privacy protections in a bill than we we have with the counties” and then we will get something done.

OI: This was submitted by a reader. They said when they contacted your office that you are not introducing any legislation because you are Speaker of the House. Is that true?

Haahr: There’s no prohibition against it, but the amount of time that is required to run the administrative end of things, I don’t think I would do a great job as a bill sponsor. I’d be constantly distracted taking care of other things.

Speaker Richardson I think only handed one piece of legislation. Even then, when it came out of committee, he asked me as speaker pro tem to take care of the bill on the floor because he didn’t have time to prepare for the floor debate.

It’s just frankly that much tougher to handle a bill when you’re Speaker of the House because of all the other distractions.

OI: Do you think the Republican party has done enough for mental health care in the state?

Haahr: Obviously there’s always more that you can do. We’ve attempted as much as possible to take that on. We’ve had a number of members who are making it their focus while they’re in office. A lot of that has obviously come up when we’re talking about Medicaid issues.

I think there are lot of ways to deal with this issue through the Medicaid process.

OI: Are you happy with the budget passed this year?

Haahr: Very happy with the budget in a lot of ways. Obviously, as I mentioned, the wins for Springfield were significant. But on top of that, a lot of the year we spent in the shadow of revenues tracking behind, a lot of concern about that. A lot of ink spilled on how armageddon was upon us.

In the event, revenues kicked up as we expected them to do. We have a balanced budget, we fully funded the foundation formula, we did the first new increase to roads since 1992.

We did the things that were really critical in the budget.

OI: You allotted $100 million for infrastructure. Is that enough?

Haahr: Well, first, we allotted $100 million over and above that they already receive. A $100 million direct GR allotment over and above the other monies that they have.

Two, long term, is that going to be enough? I don’t think so. But it’s the first time in the history of the state that we’ve allotted general revenue to road and bridges. I think it shows the commitment of the legislature not only to roads and bridges but also to living within our means. We didn’t raise taxes…that’s a huge credit to Cody Smith for carving out that $100 million. One, to come forward and say “I’m going to do it” and then two, to come through the Senate with it when a lot of other members likely wanted to do other things with it.

OI: One of the things discussed this term was the Sunshine Law and letters from constituents being made public. How do you feel about the Sunshine Law?

Haahr: So, I’ve gone through this: I had a local resident of Springfield request every person that I saw, every day of the legislative session. And I would have several constituents who would be in the building who would call me and say “hey, I want to come by and have you meet my son.”

It is concerning to me that by that person calling and saying “I want to come by and have you meet my child” that their name would show up in a news article somewhere or something like that.

We’ve done all we can to comply with the Sunshine Law, I understand the basis behind it, in my mind disclosing the lobbyists you meet with is important. But when I think it comes to private citizens who just want to come by and introduce themselves, the fact they might end up in some news article about “who’s coming to meet the speaker,” I have some concerns about because I think it chills the people who want to come by the office and talk about the issue. Especially private citizens.

OI: You spoke about the record funding for Missouri State, the full funding for schools, is it enough?

Haahr: It’s never enough! (laugh) Missouri not pacing the country in what we spend on our higher education. I’m fully aware that. It’s somewhat challenging to do that because one, we’re by nature a low tax state, and two, we have a balanced budget requirement.

But I will say that we have some fairly world class universities and what I think we did this year with the bump to Missouri State is put them on the level that all the other schools in the state have and allow them to compete nationally and internationally.

Obviously, OTC has the first advanced manufacturing center in the state. If you look at some southern states, you see all tech schools have one. So for OTC to have the first one is not only good for OTC but it’s good for Springfield and southwest Missouri when we pitch manufacturers to come here from around the country, it’s a big thing to say we have the first and only advanced manufacturing center in the state. It gives us a leg up.

OI: Are the laws in our state regarding eminent domain too lax?

Haahr: I think in some ways, yes. Obviously this year one of the things we had was the Grain Belt Express.

My biggest concern with the Grain Belt Express is that you had an out of state business wanting to pump out of state power to another state and to the East Coast and they just wanted to just go across our state. They were rejected multiple times before they agreed to make changes and essentially dump off some power into Missouri.

They were going to go over about 600 family farms in northern Missouri and they were going to use eminent domain to force those family farms to sell to them. I had significant concerns about that.

I did so because in my mind, obviously nobody wants a highway to come across their property and have the state say “we’re going to take your property for a highway.” But a highway is something that the citizens of Missouri are going to build and they’re going to utilize it.

This power line in my mind is nothing more than a private company essentially abusing the laws of the state in order to take Missouri land. I think there’s more work we can do in that space and it’s something that I care about deeply.

I was also aware the PSC decision happened during legislative Spring Break so the session was already half over when it came down. We leaned in during the second half session but I knew from the beginning that it’s hard enough to get something passed when you start at the beginning of the session and we were starting 60 percent of the way into the session.

I knew it was going to be hard. We got it through the House and tried to get it through the Senate. There’s more work we can do in that space.

OI: The rest of our questions are reader submitted questions. First one, when is Missouri going to get rid of the state income tax?

Haahr: I don’t think that’s going to happen for some time. You look at states that have gotten rid of their income tax. Texas, they have lots of other ways to get revenue. Florida, they have a lot of money coming into the state from retirees.

Missouri really doesn’t have a lot of things the other states have. Now, with the tax cuts that we did in 2013 and then my tax cut last year, we’ll end up being in the bottom ten states across the country for state income tax but I don’t know that Missouri is set up in the kind of way that we can raise funds for the state and still get rid of the state income tax.

OI: One reader said they felt you used PQ quite a bit this session and wanted to know why you used it so much. (Editor’s Note: PQ, or calling the Previous Question, takes a matter to an immediate vote even if in the middle of debate or filibuster.)

Haahr: Actually, PQ use was less this session than a lot of sessions.

This is one of the problems of social media. When the minority party complains about how the PQ has been utilized, they think we’ve been using it a lot more than it’s actually been used. The all time record for PQs I believe was set in 2013 when John Diehl was majority co-leader. We used it probably about 40 percent less than he used it.

I remember in my first year he was PQing legislation in the first week of debate. Subsequent to that, the PQ kind of ebbs and flows but we use it significantly less than in the past.

I think a good example of that is that in February when we first passed the abortion bill out of the House, the day that we third read the bill, we did not use the PQ. I think we let every member or almost every member of the minority party speak. We went several hours on the floor.

Now, the problem is when you get late in the session, the minority party is going to use and abuse that privilege. They’re each going to take 15 minutes to try to essentially run out the clock. At that point, to try and move things along, especially after you’ve debated the bill once before, you have to utilize the PQ. But PQ use is actually down from the record levels in previous sessions.

OI: Minority leader Quade stated that not a single piece of legislation proposed by Democrats in the House made it to the Governor, and she said they feel like they were pretty much ignored. How do you respond to her comments?

Haahr: A big part of that is past minority leaders really made an effort to work with the majority party to try and find common ground. Crystal took a different tack, and part of that is nationally if you look at the national party with AOC getting elected, they’ve taken more of a combative tack.

We passed a lot of things that the Democratic Party cares about like criminal justice reform being a key one. We worked really close with the Legislative Black Caucus on crafting our criminal justice plans.

The other thing is that a lot of the things the Democrat members worked for we were able to get passed. Gina Mitten had a big issue with the public defender’s office and we were able to get that passed near the end of the session. Rory Rowland and sheltered workshops fixes, we passed those, we actually picked those up and brought them to the house floor.

Jon Carpenter had a bill about issues related to ballots that we passed on the house floor. We worked with the Democrat Party in a significant amount of ways.

But when it comes to members that are intentionally combative and go to lengths to never work to try and find common ground, the reason we didn’t pass more things is not because the majority party was refusing to do it, it’s because the minority party would rather fight than work to come to solutions.

OI: This wasn’t one of my prepared questions, but something you said reminded me of something that came up during our interview with [Greene County Commissioner] Bob Dixon. He was very happy Greene County is getting a new judge, but he said the biggest backlog is coming from the public defender’s office. There’s not enough funding, not enough public defenders there. Can we get more funding into the public defender’s office?

Haahr: We’ve been working on that. I think in 2017 we gave them a fairly significant bump in the budget. At the time I believe, I think the state public defender director said if we gave them the bump they wouldn’t come back with another ask for a number of years.

We’ve done that years past. I get that the crisis they’re under is challenging and to be fair I’ve worked in states where they don’t have a public defender system and they farm the cases out to private attorneys and I don’t think that’s a good plan. But it’s something we’ll continue to work on. After the bump in 2017 we’ll continue to monitor them and figure out a path.

OI: Farming out cases to private attorneys, that’s something Dixon mentioned in our interview that he would like to do. Why do you think that’s not a good idea?

Haahr: To be fair, I think farming out some cases is a good idea, especially the lower end misdemeanor cases that can clog up a docket.

I have concerns because I did a summer in Virginia and the way they do things in Virginia is if you are a member of the bar you can be randomly assigned a case, a defense case. And you might have someone who does insurance law that gets assigned a capital case, a murder case. They’ve never done criminal law before, so they’d be completely lost.

Then you would have a bunch of Habeas motions that would clog things up. So it just doesn’t work.

I think that assigning out lower cases, misdemeanor cases and things like that, particularly allowing local defense offices to contract with private attorneys, I’m ok with something like that.

OI: The final question came in from a reader as I was driving to do the interview with you today. You didn’t assign MONA to a committee until mid-April and the KC Star quoted you as saying you “didn’t feel the issue was ripe.” What did you mean by “ripe” and what does it mean for MONA to be “ripe”?

Haahr: What I meant by that is that I don’t think we have the votes in the legislature to pass MONA at this point. I did assign the case to committee roughly a few weeks before the previous speaker, who I think assigned it May 1st and I assigned it in mid-April.

I think at this point there are not the votes in the general assembly to pass MONA and as a benefit to the members of the caucus like Tom Hannegan or Mike Stephens who are interested in seeing that legislation pass, I think it would be worse for them to see us take a vote on the bill and watch it go down than to continue to educate the members.

Now, I don’t think our members are there yet, so at this point trying to force the issue is a bad decision. I think it would be a loss that would set them back several years. But giving them time to educate the members I think as Speaker is the wisest course of action right now.