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Opening Day Of Missouri Legislature Marked By Promises, Protests

Marshall Griffin | St. Louis Public Radio

The 2015 Missouri legislative session is underway, and here are some of the highlights of the day.

Nixon gets first say on start of session

The day began with the annual Governor's Prayer Breakfast, after which he answered questions from reporters on a few topics, including whether Medicaid expansion was already a lost cause for 2015.  Nixon, of course, said it wasn't at all.

"Since we (were) here last year, you've seen a cavalcade of states in which you have Republican governors and Republican legislators moving forward on Medicaid, (who earlier) said they wouldn't," Nixon said.  "At the federal level, with the budget agreements, they've agreed to continue the funding (for Medicaid)."

Nixon laughed when asked about a tweet last month from state Sen. Rob Schaaf, R-St. Joseph, which read, "Let me be crystal clear: We won't be expanding Medicaid."

"It's nice for him to make an opening offer (and) start the discussion," Nixon joked. He then added, "Schaaf sees there (are) ways that we can improve the health-care system, so I'll continue to talk to Dr. Schaaf and look forward to having thoughtful discussions about some of (his) ideas."

Schaaf has been a leading opponent of expanding Medicaid in Missouri, and he's being backed by Senate President Pro-tem Tom Dempsey, R-St. Charles.  During a meeting with reporters before the session began, Dempsey said they would be working to reform Medicaid without expanding it.

"We do not believe the state's role is to blindly follow the federal government," Dempsey said.  "Because we have free and fair debate, I'm sure that amendments will be offered to expand Medicaid, but we're also going to have a serious discussion about reforms that we can make to better use existing resources to address the quality of care, the affordability of care, and access to care."

Protesters disrupt Missouri Senate opening ceremony

The opening day of session also saw demonstrators return to the Missouri Capitol.  Though their numbers were much smaller than the rally and march on the Capitol last month, they still made their presence known, especially in the Missouri Senate.

Protesters disrupt opening day of Missouri legislature 2015
Credit Marshall Griffin/St. Louis Public Radio
Protesters disrupt opening day of Missouri legislature.

Around 200 people gathered in the Capitol Rotunda about an hour before session began, carrying signs that called for both Medicaid expansion and justice for Michael Brown and other "victims of police violence." Then shortly before 12:30 p.m., as the swearing-in ceremony for new and re-elected senators was getting under way, some of the protesters began filtering into the upper gallery.

They were quiet at first, standing in the aisles while holding signs that read "We Believe in Dignity" and "Medicaid."  Then someone unfurled a large, white banner that read, "You've got mail," and held it over the edge of the gallery. That prompted Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, who was presiding as Senate President, to order the banner and the person holding it removed from the Senate gallery.

Seconds later, the demonstrators began chanting out loud, and Kinder responded, "Everyone who's violated the rules of the Missouri Senate and participated in that, officers are on the way to escort you out of this chamber...you have rudely inserted yourselves into a solemn proceeding...and it will not be tolerated."

One of the demonstrators then immediately began leading chants, which included "It is our duty to fight for our freedom," and "black lives matter."

Capitol police arrived and cleared the Senate gallery, escorting the demonstrators out, which then remain closed to the public for the rest of the day.  The ceremony was suspended until order was restored.

Ferguson legislation not a House priority

House and Senate Democrats, meanwhile, are backing several proposals to address the unrest in Ferguson, including more regulations on when police can use tear gas or other anti-riot measures.  New House Speaker John Diehl, R-Town and Country, says, though, that there will not be a Ferguson agenda in his chamber.

House Speaker John Diehl on opening day of Missouri legislature 2015.
Credit Marshall Griffin | St. Louis Public Radio
House Speaker John Diehl on opening day of Missouri legislature.

"To the extent that there's an interest in fixing some of the fundamental building blocks that have led to the deterioration of society in certain areas of our state, I think we'll be open to that," Diehl said, "but I don't see us being eager just to throw money at a problem and to say 'mission accomplished.'"

Diehl says passing bills to improve Missouri's economy and education will do much to improve conditions in Ferguson.

House Democrats soldier on

House Democrats have an even smaller minority, dropping from 52 members last year to 45 this year.  Their agenda includes expanding Medicaid, fighting off efforts to make Missouri a right-to-work state, and dealing with issues raised by the unrest in Ferguson.

"House Democrats represent those districts that are most directly affected" by the unrest, said state Rep. Jacob Hummel, D-St. Louis, who is also the House minority floor leader.  "We hope that the (Republican) majority will listen to some of our ideas."

So far, the only Ferguson-related proposal with the best chance of passage is sponsored by a Republican, state Sen. Eric Schmitt of Glendale.  He's filed a bill to reduce the amount of revenue cities, towns and villages can receive through traffic fines from 30 percent to 10 percent.  State Rep. Clem Smith, D-Velda Village Hills, said on a recent Politically Speaking podcast that traffic fines are one of the quickest ways for African Americans to wind up in a city's or county’s judicial system.

"(By) not answering that traffic ticket, it then becomes a warrant, and then jail time," Smith said, "and now you've got this record for low-level speeding…and then it blocks employment opportunity and maybe some education opportunity."

Follow Marshall Griffin on Twitter:  @MarshallGReport

Marshal was a political reporter for St. Louis Public Radio until 2018.

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