5 major issues Missouri lawmakers might tackle in the last week of session
Missouri lawmakers only have five more days to consider several pieces of major legislation before the 2023 session ends.
After barely passing a budget on time Friday thanks to a filibuster over a Cass County landfill, legislators still have major priorities to try to pass in the dwindling hours of the session, including restrictions on initiative ballot petitions and gender-affirming care.
Gov. Mike Parson has already said that if the legislature doesn’t pass transgender health care and sports participation restrictions, he will call lawmakers into special session.
Here are some of the big issues that legislators could tackle this week:
1. Restricting gender-affirming care for minors
Missouri lawmakers followed several other GOP-leaning states by pursuing legislation curtailing treatments like puberty blockers and hormone therapy for minors. But it’s likely that the final product will be less restrictive than in some of those other places.
That’s because Senate Democrats extracted compromises to exempt transgender youth who are already receiving gender-affirming care. And the law would expire after four years, which gives Democrats in the upper chamber a chance to filibuster any effort to extend it.
But House Republicans don’t want gender care legislation that includes an expiration date or exemptions.
One added wrinkle to this debate is emergency restriction rules from Attorney General Andrew Bailey. Since state statutes trump emergency rules, it’s possible that passage of gender-affirming care legislation that only affects minors will supersede Bailey’s guidelines that also affect adults.
2. Raising threshold for constitutional amendments
For years, Missouri Republicans have sought to make it harder to amend the state’s constitution — primarily through raising the threshold needed from a simple majority to 60%.
That seemed to be where the legislature was going early in the session. But things changed significantly after the Senate approved a ballot item that would raise the threshold to 57% — or a simple majority if a proposal gets a majority in five out of eight congressional districts.
Missouri Republicans have acknowledged that any proposal to make it harder to amend the state constitution will have a difficult path, since it would require approval from statewide voters. And the Senate proposal may be too complicated to simply explain to voters, especially if opponents launch an expensive campaign to kill the measure.
If there’s no consensus between the House and Senate on this issue, it’s possible that lawmakers could return to it in 2024. And it’s likely they’ll attempt to put it on the August 2024 ballot, especially if supporters of abortion rights gather enough signatures for a ballot item legalizing the procedure again.
3. Restricting guns from juveniles
Because of St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner’s resignation, lawmakers may not take up proposals to exert more state control over the city’s circuit attorney’s office and police department.
Those items were part of a multifaceted crime bill. Some GOP lawmakers are hoping that the final version of that legislation will restrict juveniles from carrying guns without adult supervision.
That idea ran into opposition because of fears it could be too far reaching and affect minors who carry firearms for hunting. But others see it as a critical crime-fighting tool, especially in places like St. Louis.
If lawmakers come up with a compromise on the issue, it would be one of the rare instances in which Missouri legislators restricted access to firearms. Proposals around enhancing background checks and enacting red flag laws have gone nowhere in the GOP-dominated General Assembly.
4. Scaling back foreign ownership of farmland
In 2013, Missouri Republicans overrode Gov. Jay Nixon’s veto of legislation that authorized the foreign ownership of farmland. It was seen at the time as a critical piece of legislation after a Hong Kong-based company purchased Smithfield, which has a large footprint throughout rural Missouri.
That decision became something of a political cudgel: Democrats have routinely blasted GOP candidates for that vote, contending it amounts to allowing China to buy Missouri farmland. And it’s also become a common attack tactic in GOP primaries against candidates who were in the legislature throughout the early 2010s.
Whatever the political motivations, both parties seem to want to restrict foreign companies from owning Missouri farmland. Given the sizable differences between the House and Senate on this topic, this may be something that has to be revisited in 2024.
5. Open enrollment for public schools
One issue that generated a lot of heat in the early part of the session, but not so much later on, is a plan that would allow students to transfer to adjoining school districts under certain circumstances.
This proposal, widely known as open enrollment, is seen as one avenue for kids in struggling districts to go to better ones. But considering the bill barely passed the House, it’s likely to run into bipartisan opposition in the Senate — including from Republicans who represent largely rural areas.
While open enrollment progressed further in 2023 than in previous legislative sessions, there may not be enough agreement to get it done without late compromises between lawmakers with conflicting viewpoints.