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Senate Flameout Overshadows End To Productive Missouri Legislative Session

Missouri lawmakers toss paper into the air to commemorate the end of the 2021 legislative session.
Daniel Shular
Special to St. Louis Public Radio
Missouri lawmakers toss paper into the air to commemorate the end of the 2021 legislative session.

The last day of the Missouri General Assembly’s legislative session ended with a thud when the Senate adjourned without approving a must-pass bill that helps fund the state’s Medicaid system.

It was an anticlimatic end to a legislative session that failed to fund voter-approved Medicaid expansion but featured passage of long-sought legislation that could have a big impact on the state’s roads, police, children and opioid abuse issues.

When lawmakers returned to session on Friday morning, the biggest unfinished item was the passage of the Federal Reimbursement Allowance — a tax on medical providers like hospitals that helps pay for the state’s Medicaid program. Typically, the so-called FRA passes without much opposition. But some senators wanted to attach items to it that would bar Medicaid from paying for certain contraceptives and prevent Planned Parenthood from getting funding.

After the Senate gaveled in, Democratic lawmakers engaged in an angry filibuster over how the session had transpired. Sen. John Rizzo, D-Independence, made a successful motion to adjourn a little bit after 2 p.m. Friday. And that meant a slew of unfinished business that had not passed the Senate yet died — including the FRA.

The Missouri Senate Chamber sits empty after Senate Democrats adjourned on the final day of the session after a filibuster was held for over two hours on Friday, May 14, 2021, in Jefferson City.
Daniel Shular
Special to St. Louis Public Radio
The Missouri Senate Chamber sits empty after an early adjournment driven by Democrats on the final day of the session Friday.

The meltdown means that lawmakers will have to come back for a special session to resolve the FRA impasse and potentially other matters like dealing with overpayment of unemployment benefits. Rizzo told reporters after his chamber adjourned that the blowup signified that his caucus was fed up with GOP leadership in the Senate.

When asked why he moved to adjourn, Rizzo replied: “The session was over.”

“It was over whether it was going to 6 o’clock or 2 o’clock,” he said. “And it was a perfect ending to a dysfunctional year.”

In retaliation, state Rep. Don Rone, R-Portageville, pledged to make a motion to send every Senate bill, including conference committee reports, back to the House fiscal review committee.

“We should not be rewarding bad behavior,” Rone said. He later walked back that pledge after a conversation with House leadership, saying there was still plenty of the people’s business to be done.

Senate Majority Leader Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, said he’s walking out of this session with a lot of “really, really good relationships intact and standing on a record of accomplishments that I think we can literally put up against any Senate chamber.”

“Are there rank-and-file House members who are bent out of shape that their local priorities didn’t get done? Sure. That always happens,” Rowden said. “And if we had gone until 6, they still wouldn’t have gotten done. And they still would have been upset. It’s the nature of the beast.”

But Rizzo said his caucus found that GOP leadership was rarely trustworthy or reliable, especially when it came to the FRA issue.

“It’s completely misleading all the time,” Rizzo said. “We don’t know what bills are going to come up during the day. That’s House stuff. It’s the way the entire Senate’s been operating the entire year. My caucus comes up to me and says, ‘What do you want to work on today?’ I say, you’re taking for granted they know what they’re going to work on.”

Rowden pointed out that the legislature has until September to renew the FRA, which means there’s plenty of time to hash out disagreements. But Sen. Bob Onder stressed that taking the issue up in a special session won’t make the demands of some of his colleagues disappear.

“I think that given the Missouri Supreme Court has said that we cannot protect innocent human life by defunding Planned Parenthood in our budget, it’s a perfect opportunity in a FRA special session,” said Onder, R-Lake Saint Louis.

Senate Majority Leader Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, listens during a press conference on May 14, 2021.
Daniel Shular
Special to St. Louis Public Radio
Senate Majority Leader Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, listens during a press conference Friday.

Longstanding priorities completed

The acrimony overshadowed what was arguably the most productive legislative session in recent memory.

On Friday, lawmakers finished work on bills eliminating a tuition cap for state higher education institutions and a requirement for some online retailers to pay sales taxes. That bill would pair those taxes with income tax cuts that would be dependent on revenue the state brings in.

State Rep. Steve Butz, D-St. Louis, said while he wasn’t completely enamored with the bill, he was happy that lawmakers included an earned income tax credit in the final product.

“We had to have a level playing field for them,” Butz said, referring to brick-and-mortar retailers.

Before Friday, lawmakers ended up passing the first gas tax increase in decades and establishing a statewide prescription drug monitoring program to fight opioid abuse. Republicans managed to pass a tax credit to drum up money for K-12 scholarships, limits to COVID-19-related lawsuits and a measure seeking to counteract federal gun laws — two proposals that GOP legislators failed to pass in numerous prior sessions.

“We stood boldly before this body hoping that we would rise to meet the challenges that were before us and deliver meaningful results that make Missourians’ lives better for all families, children and small business,” said Senate President Pro Tem Dave Schatz, R-Sullivan. “We can proudly say Missouri Republicans delivered on that promise.”

Deeply outnumbered Democrats also managed to get some of their priorities across the finish line, especially when they teamed up with Republicans. Legislation putting curbs on seclusion and restraint of children, a priority for Democratic Rep. Ian Mackey, D-Richmond Heights, and Republican Rep. Dottie Bailey, R-Eureka, was included in a wide-ranging bill aimed at helping children. And Democratic Rep. Keri Ingle, D-Lee’s Summit, and GOP Rep. Rudy Viet, R-Wardsville, pushed an oversight bill applying to residential care facilities to Parson’s desk.

Sen. Brian Williams, D-University City, ushered in some of the most comprehensive police accountability measures, such as the creation of a use-of-force database, since Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson.

“We’re doing things that are important in terms of building the relationship with law enforcement,” Williams said.

Rep. Justin Hill, R-St. Charles County, stands during debate on the last day of the 2021 legislative session on May 14, 2021.
Daniel Shular
Daniel Shular
Rep. Justin Hill, R-St. Charles County, stands during debate on the last day of the 2021 legislative session on Friday.

Gun and COVID-19 liability bills pass near the end

Lawmakers at the last minute also sent Parson a measure that limits COVID-19 lawsuits against businesses, churches, manufacturers and health care facilities like nursing homes. Plaintiffs would have to prove that an entity “engaged in recklessness or willful misconduct that caused an actual exposure to COVID-19.”

Proponents called the measure necessary to protect businesses from going under due to an onslaught of COVID lawsuits. But opponents like Rep. Ashley Aune, D-Kansas City, said it will have negative consequences on long-term care facilities and nursing homes.

“Because people are not going to want to take the risk of leaving their loved ones in a place where there’s no recourse if something awful happens to them,” she said.

Supporters of gun rights also got a win, with the passage of the 2nd Amendment Preservation Act. The law declares most federal gun rights null and void in the state, and gives citizens the right to sue cities whose law enforcement officers try to enforce restrictions. They could face $50,000 penalties.

“The 2nd Amendment is under attack,” said Rep. Jered Taylor, R-Republic. “It’s under attack from the Biden administration. “We are saying in our state that we know best what happens in our state, rather than some federal politician from California or Illinois.”

Democrats call the bill dangerous and unconstitutional.

State Sen. Steve Roberts, D-St. Louis, speaks with Sen. Doug Beck. D-Affton, during the last day of the 2021 legislative session on May 14, 2021.
Daniel Shular
Special to St. Louis Public Radio
Sen. Steve Roberts, D-St. Louis, and Sen. Doug Beck. D-Affton, during the last day of the 2021 legislative session on Friday.

Swings and misses

Still, some lawmakers walked away from the 2021 session disappointed.

GOP legislators failed to revive Missouri’s government-issued photo identification requirement to vote or chip away at the state’s much-criticized excuse-based absentee system. They also didn’t complete work on efforts to make constitutional amendments more difficult to pass.

Some lawmakers, including House Elections Committee Chairman Dan Shaul, R-Imperial, want Parson to call a special session to deal with election-related issues. Parson told reporters on Thursday that he wouldn’t commit to special sessions beyond one for congressional redistricting that will occur later this year.

Rowden noted that those bills could still be passed in 2022. He also said that substantive changes to the initiative petition process would need to be approved by voters.

“Regardless of if we passed it this year or next year, it’s going to be on presumably an August 2022 ballot,” Rowden said. “There’s not as much timeliness to get it done this year.”

Democratic legislators were especially critical of the legislature’s refusal to fund Medicaid expansion, which passed in a statewide vote last year. After Republicans refused to fund it, Parson canceled plans to roll out the health care program to the expansion population, which is people making up to $17,600 for an individual and $36,000 for a family of four.

Republicans contended that the move would be a long-term financial drag for the state.

“We chose to prioritize the most vulnerable in society in Missouri that do rely on Medicaid benefits,” said House Budget Chairman Cody Smith, R-Carthage. “Those folks aren’t able to work, that are unable to provide for themselves, or obtain health benefits on their own volition — as opposed to those who are working age and able-bodied.”

But Democrats pointed out that Missouri would receive over a billion dollars from the federal coronavirus relief plan if they expand Medicaid, and that fears of cost overruns haven’t materialized in states that expanded the program.

“And if the state constitution clearly and unequivocally mandates something that Republicans don’t want to do, then the Republican response is simply to ignore the constitution,” said House Minority Leader Crystal Quade, D-Springfield. “And just intentionally and shamelessly ignore the will of Missouri voters.”

All sides agree Medicaid expansion’s future will be settled in court.

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Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.
Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.
Jonathan Ahl is the Newscast Editor and Rolla correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.