A Chat with the Speaker: Elijah Haahr talks perspective and priorities for 2019
On Nov. 1, Rep. Elijah Haahr took the gavel in Jefferson City as speaker of the Missouri House of Representatives.
It’s always a historic occasion when a new person assumes control of the House. But this time there was a unique footnote as Haahr, 36, became the youngest speaker in the nation. Despite his age, Haahr brings ample experience to the job, having served in the Missouri House since 2013 and having spent the past two years as the body’s second-ranking member.
This fall, Haahr, a Republican and the first Speaker in state history from Springfield, took time to speak with Missouri Business about his plans as he prepared for the 2019 legislative session.
Missouri Business: Coming into your first year as speaker, what are some of your top priorities for the House of Representatives?
Haahr: As speaker of the House, I don’t necessarily have my own priorities; we have caucus priorities. What I talk about are the challenges and opportunities we have in the upcoming year. I separate those into two different buckets: There’s the reform bucket and the revenue bucket.
On the reform side, I think about finishing some of the things that we did last year that we were unable to get across the finish line. For instance, in the tort reform space, I think the venue bill is a big priority for us to get done this session. Then, working with the new governor, workforce development is going to be a priority.
You also have issues that kind of straddle both buckets. A good example would be tax credit reform. The governor said that he wants a reform bill and so we’re going to wait to hear his plan and start working on that as well.
On the revenue side of the equation, the Supreme Court has given us some opportunities to generate some additional revenues. The Wayfair decision has given us the ability to create more parity between online retailers and brick-and-mortar stores. There’s also the opportunity to provide sports gaming in Missouri and generate additional revenue through that.
Beyond those two opportunities, we also have the possibility of doing federal reimbursement allowance for managed care, which could generate anywhere from $30 to $40 million for general revenue.
Then, kind of a third category is what I call home-run projects, and these are things that are sort of bigger than one year or one legislative session. The one that I’ve kept my eye on is the Hyperloop proposal.
MB: What’s your perspective on what the Hyperloop concept could do for Missouri?
Haahr: I went out to Nevada and pitched Virgin Hyperloop One on why they should come to Missouri. There’s a pathway for Missouri to be the first state in the country that can build it. It’s an issue that would transcend the legislative session. It’s a long-lasting, generational type change. If you look at it, the interstate system started in Missouri. That’s what this is. This could be the next interstate system. If we had the opportunity to build it here, to launch it in Missouri, it would be a game-changer for the state and the region.
MB: One of the interesting things this year is that there will be a lot of new faces in the House. Is that going to be a challenge for you to get everyone on the same page?
Haahr: This, I think, will be the largest freshman class since 2010, maybe the second-largest in state history. It’s both a challenge and an opportunity. Obviously, there’s a learning curve when you’re brand-new. I don’t even know if I filed a bill my first year. I just wanted to get acclimated to the process. On the other side, there’s the opportunity because you have a lot of fresh faces with new ideas, people that want to do different things or do things a different way, and I think that gives me a lot of optimism for the upcoming session.
MB: You already mentioned venue reform and wanting to work on that quickly. Why do you think that’s an important policy that the House needs to address this year?
Haahr: We were really close to getting that done at the end of last session. I still think last year may have been the most successful policy session since the Republicans took the majority. We did so many big things we had been working on for a while. But venue reform was one of the areas that we didn’t quite get done. Having it that close to the end of session, I just think it needs to be an issue where we say, “OK, let’s pick up the baton where we stopped last year and get this project done.”
MB: Workforce reform is another issue that employers care about. Are there things that you think the House can pursue this year to help ensure businesses are able to find the skilled employees they need?
Haahr: There will be a variety of proposals. I think one of the things that we’re going to look at is figuring out a way that we can take our state community colleges, technical schools, and match them up with the businesses in the state — even those that are looking to move to Missouri — so that we can provide that educated workforce. Some other states are doing things like establishing advanced manufacturing centers and creating programs that lead to a big uptick in coding skills. Things like that that we can do to provide the highest-quality workforce and create jobs are going to be a big priority for us.
MB: As the speaker of the House, one of the most important things is just keeping a strong collaborative relationship with the Senate and the governor’s office. What’s that relationship like today, and how do you anticipate it will work going forward?
Haahr: I think it’s going to be great. Gov. Parson has a long history in the legislature. We’ve had a really good experience with him this summer and fall. I’m really excited. I think we’ve got an excellent opportunity to work together going forward. The other nice thing is Gov. Parson is just up the road from me. We’re both Southwest Missouri boys, and I think that gives us a bond that we may not otherwise have.