Missouri legislature opens as Republicans in control aim to get along with each other
Missouri Republicans, especially in the Senate, spent much of the past two years fighting with each other but now are hoping to band together to pass major priorities such as making it harder to pass ballot petition initiatives.
The Missouri General Assembly convened on Wednesday for its 2023 session, with some of the focus on whether infighting among Republicans will affect the trajectory of the GOP supermajority’s agenda.
Much of the opening session was ceremonial. Members of the House and Senate were sworn into office, while the leaders of each chamber made speeches broadly outlining what they want to see over the next few months.
During his speech, House Speaker Dean Plocher, R-Des Peres, alluded to some of the frustrating elements of legislative life, saying, “When you are here, you don’t just go home and forget about the day.”
“Democracy requires diligence,” Plocher said. “Thoughtful, well-vetted legislation takes time. It’s a process in which we all have a part to play. Today we reaffirm our belief in this process. In our belief in democracy and responsible, effective, smaller government that protects our individual freedoms.”
The 2022 session was personified by conflict, particularly over redrawing the state’s eight congressional districts. With redistricting in the rearview mirror, lawmakers including Senate President Pro Tem Caleb Rowden are hoping for more productivity and less negativity.
“Each individual senator has a tremendous amount of power,” said Rowden, R-Columbia. “But that power is so much more valuable for the people of Missouri. There will be days when we agree and days when we disagree. There will be days when we laugh and days when we cry. But each of those days is a gift and one that we must not take for granted.”
GOP infighting was particularly acute in the Missouri Senate, where a group known as the Conservative Caucus fought publicly with Republican leadership on a host of issues, including whether to make the congressional map less favorable to Democrats. That fight led to the Senate adjourning a day early, which killed a number of GOP priorities.
But now that the Conservative Caucus dissolved, Republicans want to take up some unfinished agenda items. That includes measures to make ballot initiative petitions more difficult to pass, as well as barring transgender girls from participating in sports that align with their gender identity.
In a press conference, Plocher noted that he had no control over what the Senate did. But he added he was hopeful that the intraparty acrimony is in the past.
“I can only work in the sandbox that I'm in,” Plocher said. “And the other half of the building has its ways and its rules on how it functions. I leave that up to them. They have good leadership over there. I'm confident they're going to work well together this year. I'm just really optimistic.”
Democrats were largely the beneficiary of the Republican infighting. But House Minority Leader Crystal Quade noted Wednesday that her caucus was able to be effective for reasons that had little to do with squabbling.
“We passed over 22 Democratic bills last legislative session, the most that we have since I've been here, and not because Republicans melted down,” said Quade, D-Springfield, “but because we know how to work with folks on the other side of the aisle and not necessarily need the credit to get things done.”
Ballot initiative petitions targeted
Rowden used his speech to call for raising the threshold to approve constitutional amendments, which would require a statewide vote in order to be enacted.
“I simply and firmly believe that the threshold for adding or changing our Constitution should be higher than a simple majority,” Rowden said. “And if you look backward, if this threshold would have been in place, some policies championed by Republicans and some by Democrats would have passed. Some would have failed. For me, it's not political. It's just common sense.”
Plocher also indicated that overhauling the initiative petition process would be a priority — especially efforts to raise the threshold to get constitutional amendments passed.
“I want the voters to be less influenced by deep pocketed, out-of-state interests, and more informed about what they're voting for,” he said.
Quade said her caucus is opposed to any effort to make it harder to pass constitutional amendments. And since any changes would need to be approved by voters, she expressed doubts Missourians would back any plan to weaken the initiative petition process.
“We will absolutely not stand for the voices of Missouri citizens to be disenfranchised, and to make it harder for them to participate,” Quade said.
Potential tax cuts
Plocher also used his speech to call for tax cuts in addition to what lawmakers approved during the 2022 special session.
“Today, Missouri is sitting on the largest budget surplus in our state’s history — 5 to 6 billion dollars,” Plocher said. “There is more room to return money to Missouri taxpayers. This is money that hardworking Missourians earned. It is in fact their money.”
Quade, though, took a dimmer view of more tax cuts.
“Of course, a tax cut sounds great. It's a one time thing,” Quade said. “What we need to be doing as a legislature is looking at what investments can we make for the long haul, when Missouri isn't in the same financial situation that we're in.”
Rowden’s speech also zeroed in on education policy.
“For too long, we have let the labels of establishment and reformer take precedence over serious and increasingly urgent policy discussions about how we define successful schools in our state,” Rowden said. “We have not done enough. [The Missouri Department of Education and Secondary Education] has not done enough. The State Board of Education has not done enough, and our students have suffered. And that has to end.”
Quade said that while there could be issues that Democrats and Republicans work together on, such as boosting teacher pay, she wasn’t sure if she agreed that the education department was failing kids in the state.
“But there's always room for improvement,” Quade said. “And coming off the heels of COVID, our kids really did lose some education. I know what it's like when my kids have to be at home. Our students aren't where we would like them to be because of the switch and because of the culture shock that happened.”
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