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Freedom Caucus blocks Parson’s appointments in fight to make constitutional amendments harder

Fog rises off the Missouri River in front of the Missouri State Capitol building on the morning of Wednesday, Jan. 3, 2024, in Jefferson City, Mo.
Tristen Rouse
St. Louis Public Radio
Fog rises off the Missouri River in front of the Missouri State Capitol on the morning of Jan. 3 in Jefferson City.

Updated at 9:40 p.m. Jan. 18 with Senate adjournment

The Missouri Senate came to a halt on Thursday after a faction of members held up a set of gubernatorial appointments until legislation passed aimed at making it harder to amend the state’s constitution.

Senate members of the Missouri Freedom Caucus filibustered Thursday for over eight hours and concluded after 9 p.m., saying that unless the Senate passed what they are calling initiative petition ballot reform, they would hold up attempts to confirm appointments such as department heads made by Gov. Mike Parson.

“We're going to draw a line in the sand of what we're going to allow forward until we're able to get IP through this chamber and into the House,” said Sen. Rick Brattin, R-Harrisonville. “And until that occurs, the gubernatorial appointments just are not going to happen.”

The legislature has met for just over two weeks after convening for the first day of session Jan. 3. Only a handful of bills have made it out of Senate committees so far.

Prior to the filibuster over the gubernatorial appointments, senators voted down a motion brought by Sen. Denny Hoskins, R-Warrensburg, to bring up a resolution directly as opposed to going through the committee process.

“I hope my colleagues join me in voting in favor of going to a committee of the whole and saying to your constituents, ‘Yes IP reform is a major priority in the Senate. We are not going to wait until the last day of session to try and drag something across the finish line,” Hoskins said.

The resolution not only raised the number of votes needed to pass a proposed constitutional amendment, it placed limits on what type of initiative petitions would be allowed.

Any plan passed by both the Senate and House this session making it more difficult to amend Missouri’s constitution would have to be approved by voters in a future election.

Voters in both Ohio and Arkansas have rejected recent attempts by state lawmakers to limit citizens’ ability to make changes to the state’s constitution.

Some Republican senators spoke against Hoskins’ motion, including Sen. Mary Elizabeth Coleman, R-Arnold.

“This isn't a vote about initiative petitions. This is a vote about a procedural motion. And I will not be joining in support of the motion,” Coleman said.

Senators ultimately voted 25-7 against the motion. Following that motion, Senate President Pro Tem Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, brought up his own motion for the Senate to confirm 25 appointments from Parson.

Those appointments included Robert Knodell and Paula Nickelson as the permanent directors of the departments of Social Services and Health and Senior Services, respectively.

Also included were the appointments of former state Sen. Dan Hegeman, R-Cosby, and former St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay to the State Highways and Transportation Commission.

Prior to the filibuster Thursday, the Freedom Caucus released a statement condemning Senate leadership for failing to pass initiative petition changes in prior sessions and for not yet referring related resolutions to the committee and threatening to hold up “any and all proposed gubernatorial appointments in the Senate.”

Rowden called the action the “biggest show of bad faith” he had ever seen in his life.

“Everybody else just wants to make a shortcut because they are not capable, or they are not willing to do their job,” Rowden said. “And so now, because that's true, we are going to hold up a group, including a former senator, who I have a great deal of respect for, because there's a few people in this chamber that don't know how to do their job.”

Rowden ultimately withdrew his motion to approve the gubernatorial appointments on Thursday. The Senate adjourned shortly after.

Parson’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the appointments delay.

Senate Minority Leader John Rizzo, D-Independence, said his biggest takeaway from the actions of the Freedom Caucus members was what they’re hoping to accomplish with this delay.

“Their top priority is to take people's rights away to the ballot box. To stop the initiative petition process from being available to Missourians,” Rizzo said. “Not child care tax credits, not raising teacher pay, not putting money into public schools, not making sure the single mom is getting paid a fair wage. No, their top priority is to make sure that access to the ballot box is denied to the average Missourian.”

Thursday’s actions came the same day as a group of abortion rights activists launched an effort to legalize abortion in the state through a constitutional amendment.

The group announced Thursday it will begin circulating a petition that would allow for abortions up to fetal viability. They have a May deadline to collect the roughly 171,000 signatures needed to put the proposed amendment on the ballot.

Sarah Kellogg is a Missouri Statehouse and Politics Reporter for St. Louis Public Radio and other public radio stations across the state.