8 Takeaways From A Fruitful, But Frustrating, Missouri Legislative Session
One common trait of Missouri legislative politics is that leaders from both parties tend to overpromise heading into a legislative session.
But the 2021 Missouri General Assembly yielded significant legislation that will reverberate throughout the state for years to come. Republicans finished some priorities that hung in legislative limbo for years. And even the deeply outnumbered Democrats played key roles in influencing the process.
“I can say pretty definitively that the success and the record of accomplishments we can point to as a leadership team and a Republican caucus is really unmatched,” said Senate Majority Leader Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia.
Yet the success of the past five months that Rowden touts also featured a last day of session that was personified by frustration and the failure to approve some key bills. That includes one must-pass piece of legislation — a tax on medical providers that helps pay for Medicaid — that will guarantee a special session. It’s also prompted questions about the leadership in legislative chambers that could linger into 2022.
Here are eight key takeaways from the legislative session and the impending special sessions that are likely before the year is over.
Arguably the most significant aspect of the session was how lawmakers completed bills that had literally been worked on for years — sometimes more than a decade.
That includes a gas tax hike that will bring close to $500 million annually to help fund transportation projects and a sales tax on certain online purchases. And legislators sent a bill to Gov. Mike Parson that would establish a prescription drug monitoring program, something that Sen. Holly Rehder, R-Scott City, has been working on for all nine years of her General Assembly service.
Rehder attributed the breakthrough to a number of factors, including how much of the state already is plugged into St. Louis County’s PDMP. But she also said many different groups made a compelling case that the program can help curb opioid abuse.
“The fact that you have the medical professionals dealing with this every day and wanting this tool,” Rehder said. “The fact that you have so many of our counties already in this program, I think those are the two things that really helped. And the fact that everyone knows someone struggling.”
Staying on the topic of persistence, Republicans managed to pass items that had consistently failed to get widespread support even with increasingly buoyant supermajorities. That includes a tax credit aimed at drumming up money for public and private K-12 schools and legislation that would institute fines on police departments that enforce federal gun laws that the state doesn't have on the books.
In fact, when lawmakers failed to override a veto in 2013 on a somewhat similar gun bill, the sponsor of that bill, then-Sen. Brian Nieves, called it the “Freddy Kreuger” legislation since it would be back even though people thought it was dead. It turned out Nieves was right: It just took nearly eight years to actually come back to life.
So what changed? For the gun bill, Senate leadership pointed to working on the language with members of the law enforcement community that came out against the 2013 version. And getting the tax credit bill across the finish line required a lot of compromise with both Democrats and Republicans who were less than thrilled with the idea because some say it favors private schools.
“We were pleasantly surprised and excited to see the legislature has finally risen to the occasion to deliver to the needs of Missouri students,” said state Rep. Phil Christofanelli, R-St. Charles County, who sponsored the tuition tax credit bill.
Even as Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson prompted legislators in other states to pass bills intended to foster police accountability, Missouri noticeably lagged behind.
But in 2021, ideas that gained momentum nearly seven years ago, like creating a use-of-force database whenever a police officer kills someone and improving a system to track officers with problematic records, were included in a comprehensive law enforcement bill that overwhelmingly passed both chambers. It was the culmination of months of work among Republican and Democratic lawmakers, police groups, civil liberties organizations, and juvenile justice advocates.
“You know, George Floyd could have easily been me,” said Sen. Brian Williams, D-University City, one of two Black men serving in the Senate. “So I think about Michael Brown, Breonna Taylor. They should be alive today. That was a focus for me.”
No one ever claimed that being a Democrat in the General Assembly was easy, especially when the paraty has been outnumbered in the House and Senate for years. But there’s little question that Democrats made an impact this year.
House and Senate Democrats were able to work with Republicans on long-sought items to provide oversight of children's residential facilities and to place curbs on secluding and restraining children. They also provided critical votes in passing the gas tax hike.
House Minority Leader Crystal Quade, who managed to get language regarding state child care subsidies into a widely praised bill that GOP Rep. Hannah Kelly sponsored, said legislative success showed that “our caucus is getting stronger and stronger every single day.”
“And it doesn’t take a supermajority to pass good legislation,” said Quade, D-Springfield.
But the era of good feeling soured considerably on Friday when Senate Democrats engaged in a filibuster that led to the chamber adjourning unusually early. Senate Minority Leader John Rizzo was particularly upset that Senate President Pro Tem Dave Schatz voted early Friday morning to send a must-pass medical provider tax to a conference committee, which effectively killed the legislation that helps fund the state’s Medicaid program.
Rizzo, D-Independence, said the flameout over the Federal Reimbursement Allowance showcased that GOP leadership wasn’t trustworthy. And because of the failure to pass that bill, lawmakers will have to come back for a special session before the FRA expires in late September.
He also said the failure of Senate GOP leadership to take charge of this issue effectively ceded decision-making power to House leadership.
“Nature abhors a vacuum,” Rizzo said. “And when the Senate leadership can’t deliver, the speaker rules both chambers.”
While the last day of session showcased bitter divides between Republicans and Democrats, most of the conflict during the session revolved around splits within the GOP.
That included a particularly uncomfortable situation in January when Parson wrote a stunningly angry letter to House Speaker Rob Vescovo, R-Arnold, for not letting him use the House chamber for the State of the State address. And much of the conflict over the FRA revolved around senators trying to cut off state funding for certain types of birth control or put into law that Missouri couldn’t provide money to Planned Parenthood.
Some Republicans, including Sen. Bob Onder, R-Lake Saint Louis, were frustrated that legislation that chafed against conservative ideology — like the gas tax — got traction while curbs on eminent domain didn’t even get Senate floor time.
“When fully implemented, we’ll have a half-billion-dollar tax increase in the form of the gas tax,” Onder said. “The tone deafness is incredible.”
While the internal wrangling of the legislature grabbed some attention, the biggest takeaway for Missourians may be how the lawmakers declined to fund Medicaid expansion. Republican leaders cited the long-term financial costs, even after federal money helps pay for the state match.
The legislative inaction prompted Parson to pull the plug on efforts to provide access to the health care program to an estimated 275,000 of the working poor. It sparked outrage among people who felt the issue was settled when voters passed a constitutional amendment on the matter in 2020.
In some ways, though, Parson’s move to not provide the program to people making up to $17,600 a year could actually help expansion proponents, because it could quicken the pace of legal action. But Rizzo said Republicans “want to have all of the adulation to their red meat by saying we are opposing Medicaid expansion knowing on the back end it’s going to happen in a court.”
“It’s a complete political game. It’s a game that they’re playing with people’s lives,” Rizzo said. “And it’s sad. … It’s about how fast and quickly they can move to get more power. And unfortunately in the state of Missouri, it’s worked for them.”
It's unclear whether tensions will linger when lawmakers come back for at least two special sessions on the tax to help pay for Medicaid and for congressional redistricting.
And lawmakers want even more extra time. House Elections Committee Chairman Dan Shaul wants a special session to deal with a photo identification requirement to vote and ballot items making constitutional amendments harder to pass. Others may want a special session dealing with overpayments of unemployment benefits, something that was a key issue for members of the House.
“I would say that issue’s not over,” Vescovo said.
Rowden said it isn’t necessarily fair to claim that the session’s clear achievements were somehow negated because of what didn’t pass. He also stressed there’s plenty of time between now and Sept. 30 to pass the FRA bill.
“The Senate is a unique place with 34 very, very unique personalities,” Rowden said. “I think any notion that because we didn’t do something that doesn’t have to be done until September 30 is a somehow a failure — I think it’s a misclassification. I think it’s a very shortsighted view of things.”
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