Saint Louis, Mo. — Senator-elect Bob Onder has had more time than most to prepare for the coming legislative session in January. Onder, a Republican and physician, won a testy three-way primary last August for the right to run unopposed in November, effectively saving him a general election campaign.
Most newly minted lawmakers walk into their Capitol offices for the first time just days after they are elected. From then, it’s a mad scramble over the course of about two months to assemble a staff, plot an agenda, and begin writing and filing legislation.
After a brief post-primary family vacation, Onder hit the ground running. He soon hired Jennae Neustadt, former Chief of Staff to Sen. John Lamping, to run his office. One of his most loyal campaign staffers, Sam Saffa, was tapped for the post of legislative director.
“[Jennae] has a great reputation in the building and she did a terrific job with Senator Lamping,” Onder said. “She’s very smart. She can read critical legislation. I think she’s going to be a great asset to our team and I look forward to working with her.”
Neustadt — a lawyer who steered Lamping during his contentious tenure in the Senate — brings some immediate weight to the freshman senator’s office. She’ll likely be instrumental in moving one of Onder’s priority pieces of legislation. Onder is hoping to index income tax rates to inflation, hoping it will prevent future “stealth tax increases.”
“The rates were adjusted under the tax bill we had this last year,” Onder said. “Indexing those rates will help prevent the stealth tax increases that happen when people end up in higher brackets due to inflation.”
Onder is also hoping to be able to work with his fellow Republicans on a more broad-based income tax cut bill, as well as a slashing of the corporate tax rate and other economic development that tax cuts can facilitate.
“For instance, if we are serious about encouraging economic development one thing we ought to look at is reforming our tax credit programs in return for lowering or eliminating corporate income tax,” Onder said.
Onder has other priorities, too. He’ll be filing legislation similar to a bill filed by Rep. Todd Richardson, R-Poplar Bluff, last year, adding new language to the state’s constitution reinforcing their parental rights. He’s planning on addressing concerns raised about electronic voting machines by making paper ballots more available, as well as some Medicaid reforms.
Onder agreed with his fellow Republican senate colleagues, including Senate Appropriations Chairman Kurt Schaefer, that Medicaid expansion — a flagship issue for Democrats and a handful of conservatives — was a “non-starter” in 2015. Onder’s own intended reforms would force Medicaid recipients to have “some skin in the game.”
“We really need to make changes in the system where patients have some skin in the game, so to speak, and have co payments when they use different resources,” Onder said. “But of course these folks are poor, but a plan with a deductible in combination with a health savings account would be a reform I think would help contain costs. It would make recipients true healthcare consumers.”
And that’s just what Onder is planning to handle himself. In his discussions with fellow caucus members and with Senate leadership, Onder expects a host of bills largely favored by Republicans to move through the Senate. Welfare reform, regulatory reform, Right-to-Work and voter ID bills are all being seriously discussed among members, Onder said.
Onder’s own experiences on Day 1 in the Senate won’t perfectly mirror someone who is completely new to the Capitol. Having served briefly in the House and campaigned for a congressional run, Onder has a grasp on some of the key players and knows where to find the elevators.
Onder hopes the chamber will get a chance to revisit education. Last year, a bi-partisan push for a bill aimed at improving the state’s school transfer program died on Gov. Jay Nixon’s desk when crafters included a limited private option. Onder said he believes education is an issue with bipartisan interest, and an essential part of improving a state.
An education bill is all-but-certain to be a priority for some in the chamber, but the growing demand in the senate for the inclusion of the private option makes the future of education policy especially murky.
Onder is anxious, even eager, to get to Jefferson City and start working. The affable, ever-grinning SLU Law School and WashU Medical School graduate, is open to plenty of discussion and negotiation that pervades the upper chamber. Onder’s legislative agenda and staff are ready to hit the ground running.
Now, Onder just has to make sure he is too. Specifically, he needs a roof over his head in Jefferson City.
“I’m reminded that I really need to get on that,” Onder said. “[Laughs] I’ve been focused on a lot of other things and it dawned on me that that’s something I should probably have figured out.”
Collin Reischman is the Managing Editor for The Missouri Times, and a graduate of Webster University with a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism. To contact Collin, email email@example.com or via Twitter at @CMReischman