GOP squabbles tank the party's priorities on Missouri's final day of the legislature
The Senate had been moving at a glacial pace all week, imperiling major pieces of legislation for the GOP majority.
The 2023 Missouri legislative session ended with a thud Friday as infighting among Republicans led to the demise of a number of key priorities.
It left House and Senate Republicans, who both hold strong majorities, frustrated that they couldn’t get more done. They started the session with optimism but ended with the same type of disunity that’s plagued the legislature for the past few years.
At the beginning of the day Friday, the legislature had yet to finish work on child tax credits, foreign ownership of farmland, sports betting, open school enrollment, state takeover of St. Louis police and a ballot item raising the threshold to enact constitutional amendments. None of those measures passed.
Much of the slowdown could be attributed to disagreement in the Senate among Republicans — a common theme throughout the last few sessions.
Last-ditch efforts to pass some of those priorities fizzled when senators began filibustering after a lengthy break.
Both chambers adjourned just before the 6 p.m. deadline without any major action for the day.
While noting that the legislature did manage to accomplish some things, including a tax cut for Social Security recipients and a ban on gender-affirming care for minors, House Speaker Dean Plocher criticized the way the senators handled their business.
“I know they're working hard, and they have a different game plan over there. I'm sad that some senators use things as hostages, if you will, there,” said Plocher, R-Des Peres. “I think they're kind of quite terrorist. I think their rules need to be revamped. I don't think they effectively represent the state sometimes.”
Plocher was referring to how individual senators used the filibuster to bring proceedings in the chamber to a halt. That occurred quite a bit over the final week of the session.
“I am not here to meddle in their affairs,” Plocher said. “They have their sandbox, we have ours. I think you're better off asking that of the Senate on why some bills get held up over there.”
Senate President Pro Tem Caleb Rowden also stressed that the legislature was able to pass some major bills, though he acknowledged that the last week of session was largely unproductive.
“Obviously all these years end in sometimes odd and abrupt and kind of ineffective ways,” Rowden said.
House Minority Leader Crystal Quade, D-Springfield, said her caucus was generally pleased that a lot of GOP priorities died during the last week. But she lamented over how dysfunctional the legislature seems to be.
“You could definitely say that the Democratic caucus benefits a lot when there is a lot of infighting within the Republican supermajority,” Quade said. “But I will say as a citizen, despite the fact that there were policies they wanted, that didn't pass that I am grateful for. I'm still extremely frustrated that our government just can't seem to function.”
Senate tensions reemerge
For most of the week, the Senate moved slowly in approving legislation. Some of the tension revolved around Ash Grove Sen. Mike Moon’s distaste for passing legislation extending Medicaid coverage for new mothers while he was attending to an ill relative.
But on Thursday and Friday, a new flashpoint emerged: Sen. Bill Eigel of Weldon Spring helped bring proceedings in the chamber to a halt because he was upset that lawmakers weren’t passing a property tax cut. He blamed the downfall of that legislation on senators who were trying unsuccessfully to legalize sports wagering in the state.
“You want to know why Missouri is stagnating? It's not because we didn't pass enough sludge special interest bills this session,” Eigel said. “It's not because government didn't spend enough of your taxpayer dollars. It's because when we had a moment in time to do what is right for this state, even if it ruffles the feathers of some snowflakes in this chamber that we made a decision.”
Efforts to legalize sports betting generally have bipartisan support. But some lawmakers, most notably Sen. Denny Hoskins of Warrensburg, want to also legalize video gambling machines throughout the state. That idea is strongly opposed by the state’s casinos, who see the video lottery terminals as a threat to their business.
“When some are leveraging [sports wagering] against a tax cut, it basically comes down to the decision: Which do you believe that we should have [sports wagering] in the state of Missouri or a personal property tax cut?” Hoskins said. “I choose a personal property tax cut.”
But Rowden said that sports betting died because people like Hoskins wanted to have slot machines in gas stations.
“He is solely responsible for why we don't have sports betting in Missouri — no more, no less,” Rowden said. “So either he finds more friends, or he needs to get out of the way and let Missourians be able to do this thing that they should have been able to do four or five years ago.”
In some respects, the tensions have less to do with issues and more to do with factions within the Senate GOP caucus not getting along. Eigel was the leader of what was known as the Conservative Caucus, which disbanded last year. But Eigel and his allies have still clashed with Senate leadership this year on a host of issues.
Some of the sharpest words against Eigel were from Senate Majority Leader Cindy O’Laughlin, R-Shelbina. She was aligned with Eigel when she first entered the Senate but is now against many of his tactics.
She chided Eigel for engaging in what she called “political theater.”
“People bring legislation to the floor that they cannot get passed,” O’Laughlin said. “And then in retaliation for that, they hang up the business of the Senate for hour after hour after hour. All of us here have people at home that we’re representing. All of us here have matters that we think are serious for the state of Missouri.”
“We’re not all running for governor,” she added, referring to Eigel exploring a campaign for that post next year.
O’Laughlin said the Senate is “trying to do things in an orderly fashion, and we cannot continue to have this chaos.”
“Either we are going to have a Senate that is respected and stands on tradition — or we’re going to have something like mud wrestling," O’Laughlin added, "which is what we’ve had for the past couple of years.”
In response, Eigel said calling what he’s doing political theater was an attempt to “relegate and dismiss” concerns from senators.
“I encourage the first person that believes in this chamber that they are free from ever having engaged in political theater to throw the first stone now,” Eigel said.
He then said the chamber was facing what he called “a Darth Vader moment” when members had to choose between going toward a path of good or a version that stands for “tyranny and oppression.”
“And when we fail those public Darth Vader moments, they live on the echoes of the decisions we make,” Eigel said. “The stance that we choose to pursue, the battlefields that we choose to fight, the roads that we choose to follow, the mountains that we choose to climb affect every one of the 6 million people.”
Eigel said after that exchange he gave O’Laughlin a hug outside a Jefferson City barbeque restaurant. He said he still respected her work, even when they disagreed on some issues.
“We never need to be afraid of disagreeing,” he said.
Senate Minority Leader John Rizzo, D-Independence, praised O’Laughlin for standing up to some members of her caucus and not capitulating during the last week of session.
Some lawmakers expressed frustration that the legislature failed to pass a number of its priorities due to inability to reach consensus either within the Senate or between the GOP-controlled chambers.
“I think they need to look at how they operate over there,” said state Rep. Jim Murphy, R-St. Louis County. “The whole idea of a filibuster is not how it's been traditionally done. Now it's an individual thing. Every time we have a gripe, we'll go stand up and read a book. I don't think that's what the Founding Fathers meant for us to do.”
Near the end of session, Sen. Travis Fitzwater, R-Callaway County, expressed frustration that some senators filibustered for the last week of session — frittering away opportunities to pass major priorities.
“You have to leave your office and build relationships. This is a relationship business,” Fitzwater said. “And when you come on this floor, and you banter about and say, ‘Everybody is bought and paid for’ and ‘Everybody's doing the worst’ because they're not aligned with you at this moment. And you haven't built the relationships necessary for them to trust you? That's not on anybody else.”
Sen. Nick Schroer, R-St. Charles County, said that there’s been distrust between the House and Senate on a number of issues, which has affected efforts to pass majority priorities.
“I've quickly learned, and I think it's common sense, that your word is your bond in this building,” Schroer said. “And when you have politicians, especially in leadership and in one of the chambers, that are not keeping their word … it's really going to set the tone. And it's going to turn a lot of people off from wanting to work with you.”
State Rep. Donna Baringer, D-St. Louis, attributes much of the boiled-over tension in the chambers to term limits.
“If we didn't have term limits, then we probably wouldn't have all this turnover of senators and House members,” Baringer said. “And there'd be more time for negotiating and understanding when we have cultural differences in these different pieces of legislation.”
Despite the acrimony, Sen. Mary Elizabeth Coleman, R-Arnold, said the freshman members of the Senate have formed a good working relationship. Since most of the new senators served with each other in the House, Coleman said they are willing to work together.
“We all had dinner last night as a class,” Coleman said. “I don't know any other class of senators that on the last day of session wanted to all go have dinner together. That I think bodes really well for the future of the Senate.”
She pointed out that she and Sen. Tracy McCreery, D-St. Louis County, disagreed on aspects of public safety legislation. But even though they weren’t successful at stopping the bill, Coleman added that “every single thing doesn't rise to the level of a filibuster.”
“And if a majority of them get there, then standing in the way of every single issue that you disagree with, I don't think is our job,” she said.
Eigel said he had no regrets about holding up the Senate’s business in order to try to get some of his priorities across the finish line.
“I'm in a position where in this final week on this final day, this is where we have the most influence on legislation,” Eigel said, “I'm going to spend the political capital that the Senate has granted me under the rules to fight for something I believe in.”
He added: “I would tell you that if this was the first time you ever heard me talk about personal property tax, then certainly there would be a lot more credence to the idea that it was political grandstanding. But you guys know, I have been talking about this for years.”
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