Speaking with the Speaker: Haahr explains 2019 priorities

Elijah Haahr was formally sworn in as Speaker of the House on Jan. 9 after serving as acting speaker since November. (Garrett Bergquist/KRCG 13)

When Missouri's House of Representatives convened on Jan. 9, their first order of business was installing their first new speaker in three and a half years.

Elijah Haahr, who had previously served as speaker pro tem, became acting speaker in November when the term-limited Todd Richardson resigned early to take the reins of MOHealthNet. Lawmakers formally elected Haahr speaker on the first day of session. At 36, Haahr is the second-youngest presiding officer out of all of the country's 99 state legislative chambers. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Michigan House Speaker Lee Chatfield is the youngest, at 30. Haahr has represented Springfield since he was first elected in November 2012.

Republican lawmakers in both chambers have proposed right-to-work legislation designed to bypass the August 2018 ballot that rejected a statewide right-to-work measure. The new proposals would allow individual counties to opt-in to a right-to-work law. Haahr supported the right-to-work measure that voters ultimately rejected, but he said it is unlikely that any of this year's right-to-work proposals will come to a floor vote in the House.

"The voters were very clear with where they stood, and I don't think we have any intention to revisit that in this session," he said.

Haahr said he feels differently about Constitutional Amendment 1, known as Clean Missouri. The measure contained a number of ethics reforms which both he and his predecessor supported. It also changed the process for drawing Missouri's legislative district boundaries, something he said had not been adequately explained to voters. He said lawmakers will consider asking voters specifically about the redistricting question.

"It's so hard to glean the will of the voters when you have so many subjects, so I think narrowing the scope of that, taking it back to voters, they'll get the chance to weigh in, and we'll just see where they're at," he said.

Republicans and Democrats both have shown signs of consensus on the topic of criminal justice reform. Haahr and his Democratic counterpart (and fellow Springfield resident), Crystal Quade, both named it one of their priorities. Gov. Mike Parson on Wednesday drew a bipartisan standing ovation when he said he was not interested in building any new prisons. Haahr said the House again will try to pass legislation that would let judges ignore mandatory minimum sentences for some non-violent offenses. He said the mandatory minimums bill should serve as a starting point for further work rather than an end in itself.

"We'd rather have you earning a living than paying for you sitting in a cell somewhere," he said.

Haahr sponsored legislation Parson signed last year that led to a reduction in the state's income tax. Following Parson's State of the State address, Columbia's Kip Kendrick, the ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee, said he feared the reduction in revenue would lead to budget withholds, particularly if the economy slows down. Haahr said he doesn't share Kendrick's concerns. He said the estimates he's seeing consistently show positive growth. Haahr said he doesn't think Missouri will face the problems Kansas did with its tax cuts.

"The 2014 tax cuts are implemented very slowly, over a long period of time. The tax cut we did last year, we eliminated some deductions, and so we had pay-fors along the way," he said.

Haahr said lawmakers will consider legislation to implement an online sales tax. In last year's South Dakota v. Wayfair decision, the United States Supreme Court ruled states can tax online sales. Haahr said the online sales tax will be one of the first things lawmakers address this year.

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