Analysis: Missouri GOPs modify their conservatism

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JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) - Republicans who hold large majorities in the Missouri Legislature routinely promote their conservative credentials. Yet to get things done this year, they often had to moderate that conservatism.

On tax cuts and gun policies, the legislation passed in 2014 was a more moderate version of similar bills pursued a year ago. Republicans also pared back proposals to dump the Common Core education standards and allow public dollars to go to private schools. And when it came time to rewrite the state’s criminal laws, Republicans worked closely with Democratic lawmakers.

In short, moderation was prevalent despite a still generally conservative bent.

“They’re as determined as ever to make sure that their principles become law, but they’ve found ways to make that happen in less than full gulps,” said Dave Robertson, a political science professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

Example one is the tax cut, which will gradually reduce the top individual income tax rate from 6 percent to 5.5 percent and phase in a 25 percent deduction for business income reported on personal tax returns.

Although one Democrat joined Republicans in the veto override, the legislation succeeded primarily because Republicans appealed to the more moderate members of their own party who had defected to thwart an override attempt of a proposed tax cut in 2013.

This year’s bill was significantly less complex than last year. It reduced the size of the tax cut for businesses. It delayed the starting date of the gradual tax reductions, allowing time for lawmakers to first try to boost funding for schools. And it set a higher revenue-growth threshold that must be met for each of the incremental tax cuts to take effect.

“You saw what their instincts were in the last session in 2013,” Robertson said. But “slowly that has been moderated back, so that they can find the sweet spot where they can pass it.”

Lawmakers this year also placed on the ballot a proposed transportation sales tax which, if approved by voters, has the potential to be the largest tax increase in state history.

In 2013, Republican lawmakers passed a measure attempting to nullify specific federal gun-control laws. The bill could have resulted in jail time for federal agents who attempted to enforce those laws and for journalists who published the identities of gun owners. A veto override attempt failed only after the top two Senate Republicans pulled their support and promised to revise the bill this year.

The gun nullification bill was pared back for 2014 but never ultimately passed, as some Republicans had reservations about punishing federal agents. Instead, lawmakers passed a separate measure that would lower the age to get a concealed gun permit and allow schools to designate specially trained teachers and administrators who could carry concealed guns.

Last year, Republicans passed conservative-inspired measures seeking to ban foreign laws from being used in Missouri courts and prohibit local policies based on the United Nations’ Agenda 21 agreement on sustainable development. Nixon vetoed both items. Neither passed this year.

Some Republicans this year set out to force Missouri to end its participation in the Common Core education standards, which have been adopted in states across the nation but are viewed skeptically by some conservatives. But they ultimately scaled back the legislation to create a committee that will study the state’s education standards and recommend potential changes over the coming years.

Republicans worked closely with some Democrats this year on a bill rewriting the state’s criminal code for the first time since the 1970s and on a measure overhauling a 1993 law requiring unaccredited school districts to pay for students to transfer to better schools. Some Republicans wanted to allow students to transfer to nonreligious private schools. In the final version of the bill, that option was limited to districts in the St. Louis and Kansas City areas - and only if local voters approved it or several years had elapsed.

“This year’s been a lot more moderate,” said Rep. Kevin Engler, R-Farmington, a former Senate majority leader who was ousted from his post in 2010 by a band of Republicans wanting to pursue a more hard-line conservative agenda.

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