State lawmakers who have spent years crafting an update to Missouri’s system of criminal laws and punishments hope to send Governor Jay Nixon (D) a bill next week.
House and Senate versions of that rewrite were passed last week, and lawmakers in both chambers met this week to discuss differences between those versions and reach a compromise. They plan to attempt to make those changes to the Senate bill (SB 491) in a House committee, and get it through both chambers and to the Governor next week.
“We have a bill which is satisfactory to the sponsors in both houses,” says Representative Stanley Cox (R-Sedalia), the sponsor of the House legislation.
One of the major differences between the two versions dealt with penalties for first-time possession of small amounts of marijuana. The Senate version would eliminate jail time for possession of less than 35 grams of marijuana, while the House version would maintain the current penalty of up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine.
Senator Jolie Justus (D-Kansas City) says the two sides struck a “tentative” compromise.
“We kept it so that if you have 35 or less grams of marijuana and it’s a first-time offense it’ll be a Class-A misdemeanor which is what it is now, but if you have 10 grams or less of marijuana and it’s a first-time offense then it will be moved to a Class-D misdemeanor, which is not going to be subject to jail time. It will be fine only.”
In response to concerns about the size of the legislation expressed by Governor Nixon, Senate lawmakers had removed some 400 pages that reclassified certain felonies and added a fifth level of felony offense. Justus says that will be restored.
“When we sat down and worked it out with the House members, frankly, we realized that cutting that out was kind of defeating the purpose of what we’d set out to do in the first place without really addressing the Governor’s issues,” says Justus.
The proposal will still come out smaller than the House’s more than 1000-page bill, though. Cox says that’s because those from his chamber agreed to remove language dealing with weapons penalties.
“There were lots of issues with that,” Cox says. “We thought it best not to try to address that. Some of it had to do with other legislation passing through the legislature this year.”
The bill still won’t be broken down into smaller pieces based on subject matter, which is what Nixon had indicated he wanted. Justus says lawmakers don’t feel that can be done.
Nixon says the size of the bill leaves too much room for error, and he dismisses legislators’ position that the bill will be vetted after passage by the Missouri Supreme Court and its effective date has been pushed back to 2017, to allow time for changes if necessary.
Justus and Cox both say if necessary, they think the legislature could overturn the Governor if he were to veto the bill.
“Obviously we’ll take a look at the veto message if there is one,” Justus says.
If the bill is sent to Nixon it would be the culmination of years of work for both lawmakers.
“The closer we get the more nervous I get,” Justus tells Missourinet, but adds she is confident the bill has been thoroughly vetted starting with its drafting by a Missouri Bar committee, followed by five years of committee work leading up to full chamber consideration.
Cox agrees. “I feel confident that we’ll get it done this year.”