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Editor's Weekly: John Diehl, the Missouri legislature and personal responsibility

Members of the Republican caucus converge in the House Lounge after Diehl announced his resignation.
Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio

As reality shows go, the Missouri General Assembly’s last week is generally worth watching. This week, the legislature outdid itself. Typically, the session closes with a flurry of surprise votes. This year, the surprise was that nothing — nothing — happened on the floor for days as both chambers imploded.

The House agenda fell apart after the Kansas City Star disclosed Speaker John Diehl’s sexually suggestive email exchanges with an intern. Diehl resigned Thursday, reviving a slim chance of action on Friday.

Democrats shut down the Senate after Republicans used extraordinary procedures to push through a “right-to-work” bill. Some Republicans were among those who wondered why Senate leaders risked Armageddon over an anti-union bill that doesn’t have a veto-proof majority.

Even measured against the legislature’s formidable track record of weirdness, this week was historically bizarre, say St. Louis Public Radio political reporters Marshall Griffin, Jo Mannies and Jason Rosenbaum. They’ve been covering developments in Jeff City for years.

It’s a strange finale for a legislature where the prevailing ideology enshrines personal responsibility. Diehl said he was taking personal responsibility for his behavior, but was vague about the specifics of how he was at fault.

“Right-to-work” supporters said they were standing up for personal choice and state competitiveness. But they declined to explain why they considered it responsible to achieve a symbolic victory while jeopardizing other legislation that could actually have an impact. One unfinished piece of business was a bill needed for the state to collect $3.5 billion in routine federal payments for hospitals and Medicaid. Talks were underway about how to get that done.

The legislative session began with several urgent state problems in the spotlight. These included health-care funding, school quality and various race-related issues that boiled into prominence because of Ferguson. The legislature has done little to address these problems, most of which afflict the state’s most vulnerable residents. Instead, the lawmakers:

  • Continued to refuse Medicaid expansion. Several other Republican-controlled states have overcome their ideological aversion to accepting federal funds to expand coverage for the poor. But Missouri stands firm, refusing more than $4 billion so far. That would have covered an additional 300,000 people.
  • Cut unemployment benefits to 13 weeks, one of the strictest limits in the country.
  • Revised the student transfer law in a way that leaves Normandy vulnerable to bankruptcy. The measure also gives students in failing schools expanded opportunity  to choose virtual schools, but it does not specify how those virtual schools will be vetted or held accountable.
  • Passed municipal reforms that address various problems raised in Ferguson, including excessive ticket-writing to generate revenue. However, the legislation sets a different revenue limit for St. Louis County and rural parts of the state. That discrepancy opens the measure to legal challenge and to complaints of discrimination from officials who run the mostly African-American communities that could face dissolution.

In other words, the legislature acted on some problems in ways that created others. Lawmakers were ideologically consistent, favoring personal responsibility over government involvement. But they failed to take personal responsibility for actually coming to grips with the problems of the state’s most vulnerable residents.
Friday at 6 p.m., this extraordinary episode of the annual Jeff City reality show will end. The reality of problems that disproportionately burden poor and minority residents across the state will continue to run.

Margaret Wolf Freivogel is the editor of St. Louis Public Radio. She was the founding editor of the St. Louis Beacon, a nonprofit news organization, from 2008 to 2013. A St. Louis native, Margie previously worked for 34 years at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch as a reporter, Washington correspondent and assistant managing editor. She has received numerous awards for reporting as well as a lifetime achievement award from the St. Louis Press Club and the Missouri Medal of Honor from the University of Missouri School of Journalism. She is a past board member of the Investigative News Network and a past president of Journalism and Women Symposium. Margie graduated from Kirkwood High School and Stanford University. She is married to William H. Freivogel. They have four grown children and seven grandchildren. Margie enjoys rowing and is a fan of chamber music.

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