On the Trail: Key takeaways from an unruly, but substantial, Missouri legislative session
Missouri Republicans had a lot to be optimistic about when the General Assembly convened in January. For the first time nearly a decade, the GOP held the reins of power in the executive and legislative branches — giving the party a prime chance to pass longstanding policy initiatives.
That optimism turned out to be warranted, especially when it came to overhauling the state’s labor and legal climate. But the process was anything but smooth.
Republican lawmakers quarreled with each other and political newcomer Gov. Eric Greitens’ approach toward the legislature elicited criticism. The last week of session, when scores of bills usually cross the finish line, was sluggish and adrift, and many lawmakers blamed Greitens' tactics in dealing with individual lawmakers,
That’s not necessarily a bad thing, at least to the Senate’s top Republican leader.
“This is the best we’ve ever done, the Republicans — and it’s going to lead to some good things next year,” Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard said in an interview with St. Louis Public Radio. “You can’t get everything done. But that’s why we’re not supposed to be here all the time, either.”
Informed by conversations with scores of lawmakers, lobbyists and political types within the halls of the Capitol, here are some observations about this year’s session:
By sheer numbers, the 2017 session wasn’t that bountiful. Lawmakers passed 55 non-budget bills, which is far fewer than the roughly 120 non-budget-related laws approved in 2008 when the Republicans last held the governor’s seat and the General Assembly.
“This is only my third year in the Senate, but it’s the strangest one so far that I’ve ever had the opportunity to take part in,” said Sen. Dave Schatz, R-Sullivan, last week before session ended. “But we’re probably going to set a record of the least number of bills that have ever made it through the finish line, before this is all said and done.”
GOP infighting in the Senate and long debates on single bills in the House reduced the amount of legislation going to Greitens. It certainly didn't help that the final day of session featured a lengthy effort to end debate on legislation banning local minimum wage. The procedural struggle over that bill meant other pieces of legislation failed to make it to Greitens' desk.
Whether that was a good or bad thing, however, was in the eye of the beholder.
Rep. Greg Razer, D-Kansas City, said “more dysfunction that they show, the less harm they can do to the state of Missouri.”
Other Democrats were less complimentary: “This House and the Senate, I believe, are completely dysfunctional,” said Rep. Bob Burns, D-St. Louis County. “Now, the Republicans have complete control, they’ve proven with their actions that they cannot govern. Because the fight is all amongst the Republicans.”
Still, veteran Republican lawmakers recalled the first year of Gov. Matt Blunt’s administration, when they passed most of their key priorities before becoming mired in infighting the three sessions after that. So, in some ways, not passing every single Republican priority in one session has its benefits.
Some of the bills sent to the governor have been on Republicans’ wish list for years, such as barring unions and employers from requiring workers to pay dues and substantially restricting employment discrimination lawsuits. Greitens also signed legislation expanding ride-hailing services, including Uber and Lyft, a proposal that languished for a couple of years.
“We have passed some very important priority bills that we just were not able to get done without an ally in the governor’s office,” said Sen. Bob Onder, R-Lake Saint Louis. “A number of tort reform bills ... have passed to make this state more business-friendly and create a climate for growth and job creation. ... when you’re working on bigger, more ambitious bills, you’re not going to pass as many bills.”
These sweeping policy changes weren’t lost on Democrats. State Rep. Clem Smith said his Republican colleagues “hit some home runs.” Still, the Velda Village Hills Democrat was surprised at how messy the process was, considering Republican “have the castle.”
“I mean, there needs to be a tune-up actually in both bodies — but definitely maybe even an engine overhaul in the Senate. I did not expect it to be this way,” Smith said. “I thought that it was going to be a well-oiled machine — and they were just going to go through everything that they had. But it just hasn’t been that way.”
Greitens placed great stock during his campaign and State of the State speech on banning lobbyist meals, entertainment and travel. But a bill restricting freebies ran into a brick wall in the Senate, and his bids to term limit statewide officials and further restrict lawmakers from becoming lobbyists went nowhere.
Some Republicans blamed a Greitens-aligned nonprofit that attacked Sen. Rob Schaaf for the flat ethics push. Of course, the Senate also balked at curbing lobbyist gifts last year when Gov. Jay Nixon was in office, suggesting the proposal would always face a tough climb in the Senate.
Sen. Ryan Silvey of Kansas City said the gift ban failed because some senators were upset with the Greitens’ nonprofit — and they didn’t want to stop taking lobbyist gifts.
“Their positions haven’t changed, but there’s an additional layer of people not wanting to pass a watered down ethics bills and saying ‘Oh, look at us, we banned lobbyist gifts’ when the giant elephant in the room is there’s multiple millions of dollars flowing through dark money organizations,” Silvey said.
Even lawmakers who refuse to take lobbyist-paid trinkets and foodstuffs say Greitens shouldn’t have made it such a priority.
“I don’t take stuff because I don’t want to take something that people in my district don’t have access to,” said Sen. Jill Schupp, D-Creve Coeur. “And if people are concerned like I am, then they shouldn’t take gifts as if they’re being influenced by somebody who is giving them something.”
For his part, state Rep. Justin Alferman said some senators were using the issue of whether to disclose donors to politically-active nonprofits as "a crutch in order to kill the bill." The Hermann Republican added he isn't giving up.
"I’m going to be the squeaky wheel," said Alferman, adding that issue of revealing contributors to nonprofits warrants serious debate. "I’m not going to give up on this."
No one expected it to be easy for Missouri Democrats when their numbers in both chambers dwindled. And they weren’t much of a factor stopping big-ticket policy changes, especially the right-to-work law that bars mandatory union dues.
While state Rep. Michael Butler said “the spirit of progress in this building has been wiped away” for Democrats compared to years’ past, the St. Louis Democrat said his colleagues were able to make a difference in committee. He pointed to obtaining money in the state budget that starts July 1 for crime-fighting efforts in St. Louis — and added that other Democrats were able to make a difference in the budget, too.
“That’s where the hope lies,” Butler said. “That’s where the work behind the scenes is very effective in this building on the budget.”
Indeed, Democrats played a sizable role in a bid to restore funding to in-home and nursing home care for low-income Missourians. That plan ultimately was sent to Greitens right before the House adjourned on Friday.
In the Senate, Democrats made a mark -- to a point. Without Democratic help, the Senate never would have been able to fully fund the K-12 foundation formula. They were unsuccessful at stopping a bill erasing local minimum wage increases, as Republicans used a rarely-used procedural move to kill a Democratic filibuster.
Because Republicans have such huge majorities in both the House and the Senate, they could still, for the most part, pass controversial bills even if some GOP members vote “no.” Still, some Democratic legislators were expecting a much worse situation than at the beginning of session.
“There are some issues where they just rolled over us,” state Rep. Deb Lavender, D-Kirkwood said. “And there are some issues where it didn’t matter that we here at all. And that was expectations for the entire session — that we would be rolled over the entire session on everything. And we’ve seen this happen, no matter who is in the majority: The bigger majority you have, the bigger the fractions you have in that majority.”
Whether the session was good or bad for the St. Louis region depends on someone’s point of view. If you were upset with how St. Louis or St. Louis County were curtailing ride-hailing services, then the law expanding them was great. Or if you want a chance to vote on raising the sales tax to benefit the St. Louis Zoo, then the legislature had you in mind.
But for members of organized labor, things like right to work could ultimately weaken unions and make it more difficult to get beneficial contracts with employers. And since lawmakers approved a bill erasing local minimum wage increases, St. Louis' bid to raise its minimum wage to $11 an hour by 2018 is in serious jeopardy.
Next year’s legislative agenda, though, might place St. Louis in the spotlight, if Senate President Pro Tem Richard gets his way.
Richard wants to have the 2018 session consider consolidating St. Louis County municipalities, as well as merging St. Louis and the county and privatizing St. Louis-Lambert International Airport. (Any bid to combine St. Louis and St. Louis County would require some sort of public vote. Whether that will take place in the entire state or just in St. Louis and St. Louis County is up to legislators.)
All of that, he believes, will stop the city's population and economic decline.
“The population is going south. The education in the city is going south. Their transportation and airport is going south,” Richard said. “And they continue doing the same things politically in the city that they’ve always done. I’m of a mind let’s change a little things. Let’s shake things up.”
While he’s not promising that lawmakers will agree to wholesale changes to how St. Louis governs itself, Richard (a St. Louis native) said it’s time to make a change.
“We’re going to have to start merging fire districts, police districts, public safety. Merge county and city. Sell Lambert Field, take that $2 billion or $3 billion on infrastructure in the city,” Richard said. “But you got to protect it, because St. Louis will probably figure out a way to spend the money on umbrellas and stuff.”
On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics.
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