Transgender rights, control of St. Louis police targeted as Missouri legislature resumes
Bills restricting foreign ownership of Missouri farmland and establishing an open enrollment program for public schools, as well as a resolution that would make the state’s constitution harder to amend, are just some of the measures that the House passed before lawmakers left for a weeklong break.
The Senate also has passed legislation, including a multifaceted education bill to establish greater transparency requirements for schools and ban the teaching of certain concepts that often have been cast under the umbrella term of critical race theory.
However, for any of these bills to reach Gov. Mike Parson’s desk, they must pass both chambers. And while the legislature has run so far without major breakdowns, ideological disagreements on bills such as those targeting transgender rights and taking control of the St. Louis police department and circuit attorney’s office could obstruct productivity.
For Senate Minority Leader John Rizzo, D-Independence, the reason the Senate has run well up to this point has to do with how some members have been treated.
“I do believe it was functioning, because they kept giving the conservative caucus guys what they wanted, right? They were paying a ransom every day to keep the Senate functioning,” Rizzo said.
Before this session began, the conservative caucus, which routinely held up legislation last year, announced its disbandment, with its members saying they hoped to unite under a single majority Republican caucus.
Sen. Bill Eigel, R-Weldon Spring, who was part of the former caucus, said the current strategy has not led to the results those members had hoped for.
“You have to wonder if the more diplomatic approach that the conservatives took in the first half didn't ultimately lead to any policy successes, well, then we might have to change tactics as we head into it back in Jefferson City,” Eigel said.
Eigel disagreed with the notion that the caucus has been catered to, saying many of its priorities have not passed the Senate yet, like changes to the initiative ballot petition process and personal property tax cuts.
“I'm looking at what the stated priorities of the Republican caucus were coming into this year, none of them have yet been accomplished. So, I think there's a lot of pressure as we move into the second half,” Eigel said.
Senators left for spring break a day early after they were unable to move forward on legislation that would bar transgender minors from receiving gender-affirming health care. That bill is expected to be debated this week.
Since adjournment, members of the former caucus, as well as some new senators, put out a statement condemning a lack of action and have taken to social media to express their discontent.
Senate floor leader Cindy O’Laughlin, R-Shelbina, said she does not intend to force an end to Democratic filibustering on the bill, despite calls from some senators to do so.
“People don't have to agree with me, they don't have to vote with me, they don't even have to like me,” O’Laughlin said. “But I think they do have to respect the position in the fact that the caucus put me in this position. And so I'm not going to let individual senators tell me how to run the floor.”
O’Laughlin said she does ultimately expect the Senate to pass the ban on transition health care for minors.
“The Democrats understand that on this particular issue, while maybe they don't agree with basically what our entire caucus believes, they understand that we are going to pass the bill, whatever the final form of that is,” O’Laughlin said.
Medicaid expansion for new mothers
In the original version of the bipartisan-backed Senate bill, new moms who receive care through MO HealthNet or the Show-Me Healthy Babies program would be able to keep that coverage for a full year after giving birth. Currently, that coverage only lasts for 60 days postpartum.
However, the bill went through several changes before it passed the Senate, including provisions that some say could prevent the program from gaining federal approval.
One of the changes made includes a stipulation that the bill cannot move forward until the number of ineligible Medicaid participants removed from the program exceeds the number of people projected to enroll in the new program — around 5,000. Another change involves a provision that would bar people who had an abortion from using the program.
Eigel was the architect of some of those changes and said he believed they made the legislation a Medicaid reform bill as opposed to a Medicaid expansion bill.
Rep. LaKeySha Bosley, D-St. Louis, who has her own version of the bill, said she is hopeful that the legislature will be able to pass a version without those Senate additions.
“If there's anything else added to it, we're going to lose our federal standing. … And we’ll continue to lose lives,” Bosley said.
Additionally, House floor leader Jon Patterson, R-Lee’s Summit, expressed reservations over the Senate modifications.
“It would be my preference that we have something that's clean, that would not put us out of compliance,” Patterson said.
But even if the House does pass a version of the bill, Rizzo pointed out it has to go back to the Senate.
“Let's say they strip away the poison pill that the conservative caucus put in it, it's got to go back to the floor. And when it goes back to the floor, when you take the thing away that they wanted, there's going to be a problem,” Rizzo said.
Passing the annual budget
Parson outlined record state spending because of a massive surplus during his annual State of the State address. Many of his proposals, such as widening portions of Interstate 70, received bipartisan support.
Now, months later, the first draft of the budget could be out as early as this week.
Rep. Deb. Lavender, D-Manchester, who serves on the budget committee, thinks there will be a difference between what Parson wants the budget to look like and the amount of spending House Budget Chair Rep. Cody Smith, R-Carthage, is willing to approve.
Lavender said some of the biggest changes could come in education spending.
“I think we're gonna see some of that in community support for our schools,” Lavender said, “not just the foundation formula, but money then for pre-K, money for child care.”
Patterson said he expects Smith to produce a budget that’s “fiscally conservative but leaves areas where we can work with the governor on his proposal.”
However, House Minority Leader Crystal Quade, D-Springfield, expects to see a difference between the House’s budget under Smith and the Senate’s budget under Appropriations Chair Sen. Lincoln Hough, R-Springfield.
“We have in the House a conservative member in charge of the budget, who only wants to cut spending, that's what he's trained to do. And so now we're in a situation where we have excess money that needs to be spent,” Quade said.
Last year, Eigel and other members of the conservative caucus criticized the amount of spending in the budget. He said that this year's budget, with many of Parson’s proposals receiving support across the aisle, is also concerning.
“I think we've got a big problem. And right now, there doesn't seem to be any fiscal restraint from any source of leadership in the legislature or the governor's office,” Eigel said.
Another area of spending is around child care. Discussion on what that looks like could ramp up in the following weeks, coinciding with budget discussions.
“In rural Missouri there's a huge shortage of just being able to find places for child care, and in the urban areas of course, too, but even more so in the rural parts of the state. So that's kind of No. 1 for me, I would love to see more around that,” Quade said.
Police control and circuit attorney takeover
Two of the longest debates over legislation in the House so far dealt with matters specific to St. Louis.
House lawmakers have passed a bill that would take control of the St. Louis police department away from the city and put it under a state-appointed board.
They also approved a bill that would allow for the governor to appoint a special prosecutor to address violent crime in cities that meet a specific homicide case threshold.
Currently, St. Louis is the only city that meets that threshold, and the bill is widely seen as targeting St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner. Gardner is currently facing an attempt from Attorney General Andrew Bailey to remove her from office.
Patterson said that if that bill is the only thing the legislature passes, he would consider the session a success.
“I think what you've seen in the city of St. Louis is that they need help prosecuting crimes,” Patterson said. “And so if we can get this bill done, we can do something about crime in the city of St. Louis. I think that would be a good thing for the state.”
Bosley disagrees and said there is always going to be an attack on St. Louis from lawmakers in Jefferson City.
“It's a minority-majority city. There's always an attempt to try to tell the citizens of St. Louis what they can and can't do,” Bosley said.
An amendment that did not make it into the prosecutor bill would bar minors from carrying firearms on public property without adult supervision. Patterson said there could be a path to deal with that issue.
“I think what you'll see is that we would like to address juvenile crime in a comprehensive package, and so you might see something in there,” Patterson said. “But we're all in agreement that we do not want teenagers walking around the city of St. Louis, or any city, with guns.”
However, if any of those measures include restrictions on firearms, O’Laughlin will not support them.
“People want to say the reason that we have crime is we have too many guns, so we will lock down on who can own firearms. Well, people should be able to protect themselves, their property, their families,” O’Laughlin said.
Missouri hasn’t legalized sports betting, putting it in the minority among surrounding states.
Both the House and Senate have legislation that could be brought up for debate on the floor. However, any sports betting bill that makes it to the Senate floor will likely face attempts to add language that would authorize video gaming terminals.
Those machines are all over the state in areas like truck stops but are unregulated.
Sen. Denny Hoskins’ bill that addressed both sports betting and the terminals was defeated in committee, while a different bill just on sports betting has advanced.