Missouri legislature returns from break with only one law passed at midpoint
After an acrimonious first half of session in the Missouri Senate, lawmakers return Monday with eight weeks left until adjournment and plenty of items left on their to-do list.
In addition to passing a budget, legislators had the new responsibilities of deciding how to allocate billions of dollars in federal coronavirus aid and redrawing Missouri’s eight congressional districts.
Despite this longer list of obligations, along with it being an election year, some lawmakers were optimistic about passing other legislative priorities, while others were not as sure.
Now, 10 weeks later and a little more than halfway through the session, only one bill, a supplemental budget that includes raises for state employees, has become law. One reason has been a gridlocked Senate.
“The Senate is by nature and by the way that was formed, meant to be deliberative, and in some cases very, very deliberative. It was not meant to be dysfunctional,” said Senate Majority Floor Leader Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia.
Rowden’s comments came on the last day before lawmakers left for a weeklong break and only one day after a bipartisan coalition of more than 20 senators stood in front of the chamber to denounce the recent actions of the Republican Conservative Caucus.
Anita Manion, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, called the press conference unusual.
“I've heard people say, ‘Well, behind the scenes we get along well,’ but that's a pretty public rebuke and calling out of members of your own party. So, I can't see that really helps the relationships and the ability of the Republican Party to get things done,” Manion said.
Conservative caucus domination
The caucus, which normally consists of seven senators from the 34-member body, has blocked or delayed action on numerous pieces of legislation in part by including partisan amendments to bills that had bipartisan support.
Sen. Bob Onder, R-Lake St. Louis, a member of the caucus, said it will continue attempting to pass other legislation through the amendment process.
“It's critical we do that because that's how 90-95% of legislation gets passed in the Missouri General Assembly,” Onder said.
Though members of the caucus say they are doing what their constituents want, Manion said another reason for this fissure could be that several members of the Senate are currently vying for a higher political office.
“Sometimes those candidates who have a lot of policy positions in common look for these ways to distinguish themselves when it comes to getting support, getting media attention, and fundraising,” Manion said.
For Senate Minority Leader John Rizzo, D-Independence, the inaction is nearly unparalleled.
“I've talked to people that have been in this building for decades, as well as politicians that were down here years ago, and they've never seen anything like this,” Rizzo said.
Frustration with the Senate
On the House side, the lack of Senate action is frustrating for some.
“You just wish the Senate would do the people's business the same way that the House has been doing,” said Rep. Shamed Dogan, R-Ballwin.
During the first 10 weeks of session, House members passed almost 40 pieces of legislation. That includes bills requiring a photo ID to vote and numerous pieces of legislation in reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic. In that same amount of time, the Senate has passed fewer than 10.
A statement issued by House Republican leadership said members have been able to send “the majority of their legislative priorities to the other side of the building.”
Some other priorities listed in the statement include several proposed constitutional amendments changing the initiative petition process by making it tougher for a proposed amendment to appear on an election ballot. Another proposed amendment would give the legislature the power to annually appropriate funding to the state’s Medicaid expansion population.
For House Democrats, one of the biggest successes so far, said to House Minority Leader Crystal Quade, D-Springfield, is the passage of the supplemental budget bill, the only law passed and signed by Gov. Mike Parson so far this session.
That budget bill included raises for state employees, funding for Missouri’s Medicaid program, including its expansion, and almost $2 billion in federal funding for schools.
“Our top goals during the session’s final weeks will include building upon our success with the emergency supplemental and using our unprecedented budget surplus to help reverse decades of financial neglect throughout our state,” Quade said.
As to the inaction in the Senate, Quade said though progress on bipartisan legislation is halted, so is any action on House bills lacking support.
“In some ways, we are happy with what's going on in the Senate, it makes our jobs a little bit easier when it comes to trying to, you know, push back against that,” Quade said.
As lawmakers return, there is still plenty of legislation to consider. A bill legalizing sports betting in Missouri is awaiting House debate. In addition, a bill legalizing marijuana for recreational useis under consideration by a House committee.
Bills addressing education, such as a parent’s bill of rights, and abortion legislation are also possibilities.
Though Dogan did say that recent progress from the Senate on some legislation has given him optimism they will be able to get back on track, one bill he isn’t sure will make it past the Senate is the House-approved congressional redistricting map.
“It's hard for me to imagine them being able to get something done with so many different ideas about how those districts ought to look,” Dogan said. “And with so many senators, frankly, who are running for Congress themselves, who have a very strong self-interest in making sure that they get maps that are favorable to them.”
Republicans in the Senate have been divided on what Missouri’s eight congressional districts should look like, with the conservative caucus steadfast on a 7-1 majority Republican map, while others back a 6-2 version.
While Rowden says the Senate has not given up on passing a map, there is pressure to get something approved. Candidate filing for the primary on Aug. 2 is currently set to end on March 29. Also, lawsuits have been filed over a lack of a map.
“I think folks are aware of what the possibilities and the ramifications are, and we want to do our best again to meet the obligation because it's an important one,” Rowden said.
Quade says a map in the hands of a judge could end up more favorably for Democrats.
“We believe if it goes to the courts, we will see a much more representative map of what's been going on in Missouri's history,” Quade said.
Rizzo praised the efforts of the women in the Senate who have worked together on a series of bipartisan bills, including creating a bill of rights for sexual assault survivors and extending Medicaid benefits for new mothers, though those bills have yet to pass the chamber.
“I would give a super extra credit to the women of the Senate who have clearly been the level heads in the chamber this session, and done a great job with building coalitions across the aisle and coming up with legislation that is effective for everyone in the state,” Rizzo said.
Sen. Bill Eigel, R-Weldon Spring, a member of the conservative caucus, said the Senate is still able to work through issues and get legislation passed.
“I'm very optimistic about what's going to happen, the moment we get back here and get back to work after spring break,” Eigel said.
The last day of the 2022 legislative session is May 13.
Follow Sarah Kellogg on Twitter: @sarahkkellogg