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Missouri Senate minority leader expects legislative session work to move quickly

Senate Minority Leader John Rizzo, D-Independence, talks with staff during session on Thursday, Jan. 25, 2024, in Jefferson City. Senate Republican leadership has clashed with members of the Missouri Freedom Caucus holding up business.
Eric Lee
St. Louis Public Radio
Missouri Senate Minority Leader John Rizzo, D-Independence, center, talks with staff on Jan. 25 in Jefferson City.

A combination of election year pressures and GOP infighting meant that Missouri legislators weren’t optimistic much would get done over the five-month session, and so far only two bills have passed both chambers.

But as lawmakers head into the final four weeks, Senate Minority Leader John Rizzo said that while he hasn’t seen a huge amount of work done in Jefferson City, things could accelerate quickly.

“That last week of session, a lot can happen,” the Independence Democrat said on The Politically Speaking Hour on St. Louis on the Air. “We’ll see what happens in the lead-up to that. But as far as I'm concerned, in my 14 years, this far out, there's still a lot of time for a lot of things to happen.”

One major piece of legislation did pass last week — an extensive education bill, which included an expansion of a tax credit program incentivizing groups to give K-12 scholarships for public or private schools. It includes provisions aimed at boosting teacher pay to a minimum of $40,000 a year and makes changes to the state funding formula.

Rizzo said that while his caucus didn’t like a lot of the provisions in the bill, Democrats were able to include some of their priorities — including a measure that will eventually require some school districts to have public votes before adopting four-day school weeks.

As the session winds down, Rizzo said a major priority is making sure to pass an extension of the Federal Reimbursement Allowance, which is a tax on hospitals to help pay for the state’s Medicaid program.

Some members of the Freedom Caucus have said they won’t allow passage of the FRA without passing another bill that would bar state funds from going to Planned Parenthood. That measure passed the Senate and is awaiting action in the House.

Democrats like Rizzo have said that without passing the FRA, it’s premature for the Senate to pass its version of the budget — primarily because not passing the tax would cost the state billions of dollars.

“And that's going to be up to the Republican leadership and how far they're willing to go in order to maintain funding in the health care system to the tune of $4.5 billion, which dramatically affects rural Missouri's health care system,” Rizzo said.

Amending the state constitution

Another unfinished piece of business is a proposed ballot item, backed by Republicans, that would make it more difficult to amend the state constitution.

Rizzo said that if the Senate takes up a version of the proposal that includes what critics call “ballot candy” to make it attractive to more voters, his Democratic colleagues will engage in a filibuster.

Sen. Rizzo joins the Politically Speaking Hour on St. Louis on the Air

“This is pretty simple for us. If it has ballot candy and comes back to the Senate, we intend to fully filibuster as long as we possibly can so that people can have an honest look at what it is,” Rizzo said. “If they choose to pick it up in the House and take the ballot candy off and put it on the ballot, then that's a fair fight. And that's kind of what we wanted.”

Other efforts to make it more difficult to amend state constitutions floundered in Ohio and Arkansas. It’s expected that if lawmakers place the measure on the ballot this year, it will face sharp opposition.

Some members of the Freedom Caucus have wanted to place the measure making it more difficult to amend the Missouri Constitution in August — and then, if it passes, place another ballot item legalizing abortion in November so that would be harder to pass. Some legal experts aren’t sure that any ballot initiative on the November ballot would be affected by the constitutional threshold boost.

Regardless, Rizzo said he’s confident the abortion legalization proposal can pass whether it’s on the August or November ballot.

“I'm fully confident that whatever month they put it on, whenever they ask the people how they feel about it, overwhelming support will be for women restoring rights over their bodies,” he said.

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is produced by Ulaa Kuziez, Miya Norfleet, Emily Woodbury, Danny Wicentowski, Elaine Cha and Alex Heuer. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr and the production intern is Roshae Hemmings. Send questions and comments about this story to talk@stlpr.org.

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Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.