6 takeaways from a contentious 2023 Missouri legislative session that stalled at the end
While Missouri Republicans scored some policy and budget wins, in the 2023 legislative session, infighting and contention derailed many of the broader points of the GOP-dominated agenda.
“It is impossible to understand how this place works,” Senate President Pro Tem Caleb Rowden said while speaking to reporters after this year’s session ended Friday. “Even somebody as close as you guys who kind of watches this every day — until you're in the middle of it, you just don't understand it.”
And while Democrats weren’t exactly shedding tears over the demise of bills they see as harmful, some worry the dissension will continue to bog down the whole legislature.
“They are still going to be obviously in situations where they have a small group that looks like it continues to get bigger after every election cycle that takes the chamber hostage and takes their party hostage,” said Senate Minority Leader John Rizzo, D-Independence.
Both parties celebrate wins in the budget
The legislative action that could have the biggest impact on the state was the passage of an increased budget with the state having a significant surplus of cash.
The budget includes $2.8 billion to expand Interstate 70 to three lanes in each direction. Lawmakers said it could have a transformative economic impact on the state. The budget also includes money to help pay teachers more and expand pre-kindergarten classes.
“There really was meaningful and long-term stuff that we did in the budget this year,” Rowden said.
House and Senate Democrats, who must deal with large Republican majorities, once again made their presence felt in the budgetary process and were able to get money for important projects within their districts. For example, Sen. Brian Williams, D-University City, said some big budgetary wins for the region included increased funding for mass transit services and, in partnership with state Rep. Raychel Proudie, D-Ferguson, money to help clean up the historic African-American city of Kinloch.
He said House and Senate Democrats have found success in the budgetary process because they can team up with Senate Republicans to outflank any opposition to spending priorities from House Republicans.
“St. Louis makes up about 40% of the GDP [gross domestic product] in our state,” Williams said. “If we invest in St. Louis and it does well, the entire state of Missouri succeeds. And I think the majority of the folks in the building understand that versus the minority of folks that try to derail the budget. We’ve been able to be successful because of that.”
Transgender issues loomed large
One of the more contentious issues between the two parties involved efforts to prohibit gender-affirming care for minors and transgender athletes from participating on sports teams that align with their gender identity.
“Our children don't need to have these transformative surgeries or drugs given to them when they're teenagers,” said House Speaker Dean Plocher, R-Des Peres. “They need to be 18.”
These measures have become staples of state legislatures that are dominated by the GOP. But the process didn’t unfold in Missouri in exactly the same way as in other states. Because senators can use the filibuster to force compromise, the gender-affirming care ban that passed was somewhat less restrictive than other states' since it exempts transgender youth who are already on puberty blockers and hormone therapy and also contains a sunset provision after four years.
But that was small consolation for Democrats who see the issue as a cynical political ploy at the expense of a vulnerable part of the LGBTQ community. And lawmakers like Rizzo aren’t convinced of assertions by some GOP members that they’re not interested in pursuing restrictions on adults who want hormone therapy or gender transition surgery — similar to what Attorney General Andrew Bailey is proposing in his emergency rules.
“I don't trust one way or the other that they're going to stop or start it because it's driven by winning the next election and not whether it's a good idea,” Rizzo said. “So they could on Monday tell me that it's not going to happen. But then polls come back on Thursday, and they need to win their next election. And Friday, we're doing it.”
Legislation helping new moms and low-income families
One bipartisan policy achievement was the passage of legislation extending Medicaid coverage for new mothers.
That measure was not only a major priority for Gov. Mike Parson, but also for Republicans and Democrats in both chambers.
House Minority Leader Crystal Quade, D-Springfield, said her caucus was pleased with that bill getting across the finish line and attributed some of the push for it to the Supreme Court decision that overturned Roe v. Wade.
“I believe Republican lawmakers decided to start filing these bills that are pro-life bills and that are pro family and passing them, and I'm grateful that these bills are moving,” Quade said. “But I definitely think it is because of that backlash.”
Another bill that ended up making it to Parson’s desk would gradually reduce benefits for low-income families as opposed to sharply cutting them when family income goes above a certain point.
Sen. Mary Elizabeth Coleman, R-Arnold, pointed to numerous examples in which some people may be hesitant to accept a modest raise because it could result in catastrophic decreases in benefits.
“And what we've seen is it actually drops the overall number of people that are using the system, because they're able to work their way into independence,” Coleman said. “If a big-box store increases their pay, let's say from $15 an hour to $16 an hour, that could be a net loss of $7,500 for a family, which, that's not something most people are able to handle who are living in poverty.”
Speaker links initiative petition overhaul to abortion legalization push
Before the legislative session, there was conjecture from Democrats that Republicans wanted to make changes to the initiative petition process a priority in order to head off a likely ballot measure to expand access to abortion in the state.
On Friday, Plocher removed any ambiguity that the unsuccessful effort to make constitutional amendments more difficult to pass and abortion rights were linked.
“And if the Senate fails to take action on [initiative petition] reform, I think the Senate should be held accountable for allowing abortion to return to Missouri,” Plocher said. “I think we all believe that an initiative petition will be brought forth to allow choice. I believe it will pass. I think abortion will be allowed because they'll put ballot candy in and if you don't pass IP reform, it'll be 50% plus one.”
Rowden said the issue is more complicated than that. For one thing, it’s not clear at this point what abortion rights advocates want to put on the ballot. He said if organizers of that initiative put forth a proposal that allows for abortion with few restrictions, Missourians could reject it.
Quade, though, said Plocher was essentially giving the game away about why Republicans were so eager to send measures to the voters that raised the threshold to enact constitutional amendments. “It's really funny when the Republicans say the quiet part out loud,” she said.
Lawmakers not giving up on state oversight of St. Louis police
One local subplot of the legislative session revolved around efforts to exert more state control over St. Louis’ circuit attorney's office and police department.
Legislators in the House approved measures allowing for the governor to appoint a special prosecutor who could take on the circuit attorney’s duties. They also advanced legislation that would establish a board appointed by the governor to oversee the police department.
Both of those measures died in the Senate largely because of St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner’s decision to resign as of June 1. Rowden said lawmakers will be in a wait-and-see mode about whether they want to effectively undo a ballot measure that voters approved in 2012 establishing local control of police.
St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones said the failure of the bid to end local control means that the department will be “accountable to St. Louis taxpayers instead of police board bureaucrats.”
Sen. Nick Schroer, though, said he’s not finished pushing for state control of the police department. The St. Charles County Republican said he’s still hearing from police officers that they’re not satisfied with how the city is managing the department. The city’s police union supported state control.
“I think we need to think outside of the box and start listening to the experts on the ground,” Schroer said.
During the last week of the session, some Democrats pointed out that Republicans who were critical of St. Louis leaders for how they dealt with crime weren’t willing to consider gun restrictions. That includes so-called “red flag” laws, which can disarm people who are a threat to themselves or others.
And while some Republicans sought to pass legislation that could restrict juveniles from carrying guns, that measure also faltered before the end of session.
Will the contention continue?
In some respects, the expansion of Republican fortunes in the Missouri legislature is both a blessing and a curse for the party.
Since the GOP possesses large majorities and the governorship, the party has much more leeway to enact policies that were out of reach during years of divided government. But that also means that infighting among Republicans can be a more potent obstacle to legislative success than divisions between Republicans and Democrats.
That was seen in a big way during the last week of the session, when lawmakers who used to belong to what was known as the Conservative Caucus brought the Senate to a standstill with a host of grievances. The slowdown led to the demise of bills dealing with education policy, foreign ownership of farmland, legalizing sports wagering and making the constitution more difficult to amend.
“I don't know if y'all notice, but we spent a lot of today doing a whole lot of nothing,” Quade said on Friday. “There were recesses every day this week, we were done early. And that's because the government was at a standstill.”
Sen. Bill Eigel, R-St. Charles County, defended his filibustering tactics, contending that slowing things down provides leverage to pass major priorities such as cutting property taxes. Others perceived the Senate infighting as self-serving grandstanding aimed at helping future political prospects.
Senate Majority Leader Cindy O’Laughlin, R-Shelbina, said the dissension in the last week shouldn’t paper over the accomplishments of the 2023 session.
She also said that disagreement is a part of life.
“Maybe go down to the local coffee shop where there's 20 or 30 people and bring up a hot topic and see if all of them agree,” O’Laughlin said. “Everyone has a different opinion, and it can be very difficult to get everybody to kind of get on the same path.”