Missouri Legislature Begins Final Week With Plenty Of Unfinished Business

May 10, 2021
Originally published on May 9, 2021 8:03 am

The Missouri General Assembly will move into its final week of regular session Monday with scores of key priorities left unpassed, leaving lots of uncertainty about what will end up making it to Gov. Mike Parson’s desk.

But the passage of key education-related legislation last week could open up the floodgates for other priorities to pass.

When legislators gavel into session on Monday they’ll have a 6 p.m. Friday deadline to complete their work. Some of the key issues still to be decided include:

  • Shielding businesses and religious institutions from COVID-related lawsuits. This proposal, which was cited by Parson as a top legislative priority, stalled after passing the Senate but ended up getting resurrected and paired with curbs on health departments’ ability to implement coronavirus-related restrictions.
  • Wide-ranging election legislation that would institute a photo identification requirement to vote, but also open up a no-excuse absentee period for in-person voting. If passed, it would result in the most significant chipping away of Missouri’s much-criticized excuse-based absentee system — but also put into place a photo ID requirement that Democrats have opposed for decades.
  • Bills that would bar police from using chokeholds and from engaging in sexual activity with detainees. It would also seek to better track officers with questionable records and remove the Kansas City Police Department residency requirement. Those proposals have been placed onto several different bills, including one that could eventually make it a felony to block traffic during street protests.
  • Ballot items that could make it more difficult for constitutional amendments to pass, either by increasing the number of necessary signatures or requiring two-thirds of voters to implement an amendment. That idea has support from top Republicans like Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft but will likely draw bipartisan opposition from groups that use the initiative petition process to push policy matters.
  • A gas tax hike that’s a priority for Senate President Pro Tem Dave Schatz, R-Sullivan. That measure would gradually boost the state’s 17 cents-per-gallon tax to 29 cents over five years. Whether it has the votes to pass in the House is unknown, especially since House Speaker Rob Vescovo, R-Arnold, has not been a fan of the idea.

But one event that occurred last week could have a major impact on what ends up passing this week. On Thursday, the Senate quickly passed long-sought legislation that creates a tax credit for contributors to nonprofits that provide educational assistance. The sponsor of that measure, Rep. Phil Christofanelli, said the Senate’s decision to send what’s known as Missouri Empowerment Scholarship Accounts to Parson could affect what the House does on unfinished business.

“I think when you see the upper chamber move on a big priority for the House, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect a lot of movement in the House on priorities of the Senate,” said Christofanelli, R-St. Charles County. “And I think we could be in for a productive final week of session.”

Some of the other potential ideas that the legislature could take up include establishing a prescription drug monitoring program to track opioids. Christofanelli said there are a number of smaller measures that could get consideration — as the legislature spent the past week debating omnibus bills that include multiple proposals that didn’t make it as standalone legislation.

One unknown is whether the legislature will take up other education-related matters, such as bills establishing open school district enrollment or expanding charter schools.

“Education reform is always a heavy lift in the Missouri Legislature. It’s one that inspires all sorts of feelings from different people and different perspectives and different parts of our state,,” Christofanelli said. “I think that nothing is off the table for the final week.”

The last week of session is typically where Missouri Democrats have the most leverage, since they can use the filibuster to force changes on bills they don’t like — or completely run out the clock to kill certain pieces of legislation.

Sen. Lauren Arthur, D-Kansas City, said that one of the reasons her Democratic colleagues decided not to filibuster Christofanelli’s legislation is they didn’t think such a move would have altered the bill. It likely would have passed even if there was an all-hands-on-deck talk-a-thon, she said.

“I think the fact that we passed an ESA bill [Thursday], to my surprise really, opens up the floodgates for a lot of impactful legislation to be debated [over the last week of session],” Arthur said. “In exchange for the Senate taking a vote on ESAs, I expect the House will take an up-or-down vote on the gas tax increase. It’s not clear to me whether that has the votes to pass at this point. I think probably it fails.

Arthur said a different scenario may play out with legislation that would implement a photo ID requirement to vote.

“I’ve been really concerned by some of the anti-Democratic actions taking place — like the refusal to fund Medicaid expansion even though voters approved it,” Arthur said. “I just see it as part of a larger pattern to disenfranchise people when political outcomes don’t go Republicans’ way. And I think that’s dangerous.”

Another key piece of legislation that will need to eventually get passed is the Federal Reimbursement Allowance, which is a tax on hospitals that’s used to help pay for the state’s Medicaid program. Sen. Bob Onder placed an amendment on that measure to prohibit the state from providing funds to places like Planned Parenthood, and that’s held up that legislation from passing.

If lawmakers don’t complete work on that issue, Parson would have to call the General Assembly back in a special session.

Arthur noted that there’s been more GOP infighting than usual this session, especially in the Senate. She said that could make it more difficult for Senate Republicans to get votes for what’s known as a previous question motion that can cut a filibuster short.

“They’re divided on a number of issues and can’t really seem to find consensus on a variety of topics,” Arthur said. “While I don’t want to completely dismiss the idea that we may find ourselves in that kind of situation, I think it’s pretty unlikely at this point.”

There’s also been tension between Missouri legislative leaders and Parson, most notably earlier in the session when the governor wrote an acerbic letter over the venue for the State of the State. Republicans also declined to fund Medicaid expansion, even though Parson used his State of the State to announce that the health care program can be bolstered.

Sen. Paul Wieland, R-Imperial, said relationships between lawmakers and the governor “ebb and flow.”

He noted that even though Parson and Vescovo, the House speaker, were at odds earlier in the session, they were saying complimentary things about each other during a press conference regarding foster care legislation.

“Relationships shift, and it depends upon the issues and time,” Wieland said. “I still think Gov. Parson is still doing a good job. He communicates with the legislature on things that he thinks are important and he stays away when he thinks he needs to stay away.”

After the regular session ends, Parson will be calling lawmakers back to the Capitol at least one time this year to pass the state’s congressional redistricting map.

Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum

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