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New Missouri Senate majority leader sees ballot initiatives and education as top issues

Republican State Sen. Cindy O'Laughlin on Monday, Oct. 24, 2022, at her trucking company’s headquarters in Shelbina, Mo.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Republican state Sen. Cindy O'Laughlin at her trucking company’s headquarters in Shelbina, Mo., on Oct. 24. O'Laughlin was picked Thursday to be the next state Senate majority leader.

A northeast Missouri Republican won a contested race on Thursday to be the next state Senate majority leader.

Sen. Cindy O’Laughlin of Shelbina beat out Sen. Mike Bernskoetter of Jefferson City. As majority leader, O’Laughlin will be responsible for deciding which bills receive considered on the floor in 2023. And she’ll play a major role in trying to keep the peace in a GOP caucus whose members haven't always gotten along with each other.

“And I've tried to work with people to come up with common ground, so we can move forward,” O’Laughlin said. “And I think people saw that and they thought, ‘OK, maybe Cindy can kind of be a bridge for everybody.’ And that's what I'm hoping.”

O’Laughlin has been a major political figure in northeast Missouri politics for several decades, often playing a behind-the-scenes role in helping other GOP candidates. In 2018, she emerged from a crowded Republican primary to represent Missouri’s 18th District, which includes most of northeast Missouri.

Since entering the Senate, O’Laughlin, a former school board member, has made education policy a major focus. She said she expects that issue to be a broad topic of conversation in 2023, particularly around bills that may recruit more teachers. And O’Laughlin also said there will be an examination over how some districts have school only four days a week.

“I don't see how being there one less day a week is going to be a way to drive our scores up,” O’Laughlin said. “So those are some of the things I think we were going to have to look at.”

O’Laughlin also said the passage of a constitutional amendment legalizing recreational marijuana should prompt discussion about changing the initiative petition process. Some Republicans have wanted to raise the voting threshold necessary to pass a constitutional amendment or increase the number of signatures required to get something before voters.

“Really, the biggest downside of that is the legislature has no ability then to adjust anything,” O’Laughlin said. “Once it's in the constitution, it's in there. And so I think that we'll look at some reforms for the initiative petition process.”

Major changes would likely have to go before Missourians, since they would require a constitutional amendment. O’Laughlin said she’ll have to confer with Senate research about when any changes would go into effect.

Senate Majority Leader Rep. Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, looks to his team on Monday, Aug. 8, 2022, during the Bi-State Softball Showdown at Busch Stadium.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Newly elected Missouri state Senate President Pro Tem Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, looks to his team during the Bi-State Softball Showdown at Busch Stadium on Aug. 8.

O’Laughlin will be the No. 2 Republican in the Senate behind Caleb Rowden of Columbia, who won the president pro tem post on Thursday. Rowden has often butted heads with members of the now-disbanded Conservative Caucus, particularly on a congressional redistricting map.

In a statement, Rowden said his caucus is going “to work together in the Senate to make Missouri the best place in the country to live, work and raise a family.”

“The next generation of Missourians deserve more opportunities than we have today,” Rowden said. “I will work every day to help that hope become a reality.”

Senate Minority John Rizzo of Independence was also reelected to his leadership role. GOP Rep. Dean Plocher of Des Peres will likely become speaker of the House next year — with Democratic House Minority Leader Crystal Quade of Springfield returning for one last term in her leadership position.

Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.