Missouri legislators look to legalize sports betting and change ballot petitions in 2023
With last year’s acrimonious fight over congressional redistricting over, Missouri lawmakers are hoping to accomplish more this year.
House Floor Leader Jon Patterson, R-Lee’s Summit, said he believes everyone is optimistic about the 2023 legislative session that begins Wednesday.
“We don't have redistricting, which is a very, by definition, a very political process, taking up a lot of the political energy. So hopefully, we can devote some of that energy to getting things done,” Patterson said.
Initiative ballot petition changes
For Republicans, one of those priorities is changing the process on amending Missouri’s constitution through the ballot initiative petition process.
Through initiative petitions, Missouri voters have amended the state’s constitution to allow for medical and recreational marijuana, a minimum wage increase and Medicaid expansion.
Republican lawmakers say it’s too easy to amend the constitution but don’t have a consensus on how that legislation should work.
Options include increasing the number of signatures needed to get an issue on the ballot or increasing the number of votes needed to approve it.
Incoming Senate President Pro Tem Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, said he’s in favor of upping the voting approval threshold.
“I'm personally not in favor of changing signature requirements, and you know, a whole host of these other things, which I think are literally just designed functionally to make it harder to get on the ballot,” Rowden said.
Any proposals amending the initiative petition process will face resistance from Democrats. Sen. Brian Williams, D-University City, said it’s another form of democracy that Missourians can participate in and pass policies they care about.
“A lot of these issues have been at the expense of the fact that the legislature has not been able to get those things done,” Williams said.
Even if the legislature did pass any changes to the process, voters would have to approve of them as well.
Bills affecting transgender children
Another divisive topic likely to be brought up involves transgender children.
Multiple bills have already been filed this year, including legislation that would bar transgender girls from participating in sports that align with their gender identity. Other bills would bar transgender children from accessing gender-affirming health care including puberty blockers.
Patterson said he wants every child, including transgender kids, to “have a place.”
“What we're going to try to do is find a way that transgender people can be accepted in society and compete, but also to make sure that the people that aren’t, are safe, and also have the chance to compete,” Patterson said.
The Missouri State High School Activities Association already has guidelines on sports participation for transgender athletes.
Senate Minority Leader John Rizzo, D-Independence, called Republicans’ decision to focus on this “absolutely baffling.”
“If that's who they are, if that's what they want to put front and center is taking on the difficult issue of being angry and mean towards children. That's their decision,” Rizzo said.
House Minority Leader Crystal Quade, D-Springfield, said there will be no compromise on opposing these bills, including ones on medical care.
“Our doctors follow protocols that are pediatric standards across the entire country when it comes to making decisions for all of our kids' health care,” Quade said. “And I think that continuing to trust them to do so it's probably better than some folks in the legislature who have never opened a medical book in their lives.”
Renewed effort on gun control from Democrats
For Democrats, one of their priorities is passing gun control measures. Between the House and Senate, Democrats have already filed around 20 pieces of legislation on the issue.
The actions come after the deadly shooting at Central Visual and Performing Arts High School in St. Louis in October.
Quade said members of her caucus have been talking with law enforcement officers and asking them what legislation is needed. That includes bills around the state’s Second Amendment Preservation Act, which prohibits the enforcement of federal gun regulations.
“We're really going to be looking at it through that lens, what sort of reforms can we do with it that gives power back to our law enforcement officers to do their jobs,” Quade said.
But Senate Floor Leader Cindy O’Laughlin, R-Shelbina, said there is not a scenario where such a bill passes this year.
“I think that they feel, you know, if we had less guns, we'd have less gun crime. And I see no evidence of that,” O’Laughlin said.
Rowden agreed, saying the focus should be on the enforcement of existing laws.
“Making sure those laws are right, and probably toughening sentences for violent criminals,” Rowden said.
Even though the likelihood of the legislature passing gun control measures is small, Williams said that doesn’t mean he’ll stop trying.
“I just can't look another child in the face or their parents, knowing that I'm not doing everything I can to protect them,” Williams said.
What are the odds of legalizing sports betting?
There are some policies this year that have bipartisan support, including legalizing sports betting.
Since Kansas passed sports betting in 2022, Missouri is among the minority of its neighbors that haven't passed it.
Sen. Denny Hoskins, R-Warrensburg, who is sponsoring a bill legalizing sports betting, said he has the backing of Missouri’s professional sports teams, which also will financially benefit.
“Make no bones about it. This is all about revenue. And the casinos as well as professional sports teams see it as a way to help increase revenue for themselves,” Hoskins said.
Rizzo said he thinks it’s a top priority this year, and he’s eager to have conversations around the issue.
“It should be something that we should work on really hard because the people want it. And that's what we're there to do,” Rizzo said.
In addition to sports betting, Hoskins’ bill would authorize video gaming machines in the state. Hoskins said they would bring greater revenue than money earned from sports betting because of how they are taxed.
“They would generate over $250 million to the state that would go toward education, as well as go toward our veteran’s homes and cemeteries,” Hoskins said.
Education a focus for both parties
Another area of policy that could see consensus is teacher pay.
Legislators delivered on a pay raise for both starting and existing teachers during the last session.
However, even with the raises, which made the minimum starting salary in the state $38,000 through a grant program, lawmakers agree teachers need to be paid more.
“I was on the Blue Ribbon Commission that talked about what is it we need to do to recruit and retain teachers, and of course, the pay is one of those issues,” O’Laughlin said.
Beyond teacher pay, Quade said she expects to see conversations around school choice and on affordability of higher education, such as Missouri’s historically Black colleges and universities.
“It's not just K-12 education, but looking at our scholarship programs and funding our HBCUs, which we are still very, very far behind on,” Quade said.
There are also bills filed addressing critical race theory, which is not taught in Missouri but some legislators generally use to define a broad swath of curriculum related to race and diversity.
Patterson said it is a priority for Republicans this year.
“We want students to learn about all the different races and cultures, but I think what we disagree on is we don't want students to be taught that they are racist, or that they are inherently racist, because of who they are,” Patterson said.
A surplus and more federal dollars
The one thing the legislature must accomplish this year is the annual passage of a state budget. In addition to a state surplus of billions, lawmakers once again have federal money to spend, this time from the bipartisan infrastructure plan.
Missouri is set to receive over $3.5 billion from the federal law.
O’Laughlin said infrastructure is an area with bipartisan agreement, including investing in roads and bridges in more rural areas.
Williams said he again wants to see the legislature invest in public transportation across the state.
“We've seen public transportation serve as a keystone to advance in our workforce, and just allowing people to be able to get around a lot easier,” Williams said.
Quade said Democrats want to see the billions in state surplus go toward programs that will improve Missourians’ lives.
“I mean things like looking at child care, which we know the other side of the aisle is having conversations around as well, looking at economic development, and broadband and ways that we can continue to increase revenue in our state,” Quade said.
Senate and House relationships
None of either party's policies will get done if they don’t put aside last year’s acrimony.
The debate over redistricting and other issues regularly led to disagreements between the then seven-member Senate Conservative Caucus and fellow Republicans. Midway through the session, a bipartisan group of senators openly condemned the actions of the caucus.
Though the Conservative Caucus in the Senate is now dissolved, Hoskins, a former member, said he will remain passionate over some issues the caucus supported.
“I'm going to continue to fight for what I think is right for my constituents and fight for conservative policies in the state,” Hoskins said.
Rizzo said that while the title is gone, the ideas of the caucus remain the same.
“They are the far-right, ultra conservatives in the chamber that have no problem with holding the entire chamber hostage, even though their views are usually super-minority standpoints,” Rizzo said.
On the House side, there is a new-speaker elect and floor leader. Patterson said he wants to work with Democrats on what they agree on and when there are disagreements, to be civil.
“It's not personal, it's not emotional. We all know that every representative there is trying to do what's right for their district,” Patterson said.
Quade, who has served as the House minority leader since 2019, said she is optimistic about relationships in the House moving forward, including with Patterson and Speaker-elect Dean Plocher, R-Clayton.
“I think that many members of my caucus have good relationships with them, and they are the moderate wing of their party,” Quade said. “So I do think that there's going to be some room for some compromise and working together.”
With new leadership, Rowden said he believes the House and Senate can work together, despite past differences.
“I think we're gonna have open lines of communication. And I think we share similarities as far as some priorities,” Rowden said.
Correction: Sen. Doug Beck is the new Assistant Minority Leader for Senate Democrats. A previous version of the story incorrectly identified the leader.