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Politics, Elections and Government

8 Takeaways From The Missouri Legislative's Fruitful, But Frustrating, Session

Members of the Missouri House work on the last day of the 2021 legislative session on May 14, 2021.
Members of the Missouri House work on the last day of the 2021 legislative session on May 14, 2021.

The GOP-controlled Missouri legislature passed several major initiatives in the just-completed 2021 session. But it wasn't exactly easy.

One common trait of Missouri legislative politics is that leaders from both parties tend to overpromise heading into a legislative session.

But the 2021 Missouri General Assembly yielded significant legislation that will reverberate throughout the state for years to come. Republicans finished some priorities that hung in legislative limbo for years. And even the deeply outnumbered Democrats played key roles in influencing the process.

“I can say pretty definitively that the success and the record of accomplishments we can point to as a leadership team and a Republican caucus is really unmatched,” said Senate Majority Leader Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia.

Yet the success of the past five months that Rowden touts also featured a last day of session that was personified by frustration and the failure to approve some key bills. That includes one must-pass piece of legislation — a tax on medical providers that helps pay for Medicaid that will guarantee a special session. It’s also prompted questions about the leadership in legislative chambers that could linger into 2022.

Here are eight key takeaways from the legislative session and the impending special sessions that are likely before the year is over.

 Missouri lawmakers toss paper into the air to commemorate the end of the 2021 legislative session.
Daniel Shular / Special to St. Louis Public Radio
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Missouri lawmakers toss paper into the air to commemorate the end of the 2021 legislative session.

1. Persistence paid off

Arguably the most significant aspect of the session was how lawmakers completed bills that had literally been worked on for years — sometimes more than a decade.

That includes a gas tax hike that will bring close to $500 million annually to help fund transportation projects and a sales tax on certain online purchases. And legislators sent a bill to Gov. Mike Parson that would establish a prescription drug monitoring program, something that Sen. Holly Rehder, R-Scott City, has been working on for all nine years of her General Assembly service.

Rehder attributed the breakthrough to a number of factors, including how much of the state already is plugged into St. Louis County’s PDMP. But she also said many different groups made a compelling case that the program can help curb opioid abuse.

“The fact that you have the medical professionals dealing with this every day and wanting this tool,” Rehder said. “The fact that you have so many of our counties already in this program, I think those are the two things that really helped. And the fact that everyone knows someone struggling.”

State Rep. Jered Taylor, R-Republic, presides over the House during the final day of the 2021 legislative session on May 14, 2021. Taylor was the sponsor of the Second Amendment Preservation Act, which is heading to Gov. Mike Parson's desk.
Daniel Shular / Special to St. Louis Public Radio
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State Rep. Jered Taylor, R-Republic, presides over the House during the final day of the 2021 legislative session on May 14, 2021. Taylor was the sponsor of the Second Amendment Preservation Act, which is heading to Gov. Mike Parson's desk.

2. Some bills just wouldn't stay dead

Staying on the topic of persistence, Republicans managed to pass items that had consistently failed to get widespread support even with increasingly buoyant supermajorities. That includes a tax credit aimed at drumming up money for public and private K-12 schools and legislation that would institute fines on police departments that enforce federal gun laws that the state doesn't have on the books.

In fact, when lawmakers failed to override a veto in 2013 on a somewhat similar gun bill, the sponsor of that bill, then-Sen. Brian Nieves, called it the “Freddy Kreuger” legislation since it would be back even though people thought it was dead. It turned out Nieves was right: It just took nearly eight years to actually come back to life.

So what changed? For the gun bill, Senate leadership pointed to working on the language with members of the law enforcement community that came out against the 2013 version. And getting the tax credit bill across the finish line required a lot of compromise with both Democrats and Republicans who were less than thrilled with the idea because some say it favors private schools.

“We were pleasantly surprised and excited to see the legislature has finally risen to the occasion to deliver to the needs of Missouri students,” said state Rep. Phil Christofanelli, R-St. Charles County, who sponsored the tuition tax credit bill.

Senator Brian Williams, D-St. Louis, speaks during a press conference after the senate was adjourned on the final day of the session at the Missouri State Capitol Building on Friday, May 14, 2021, in Jefferson City.
Daniel Shular / Special to St. Louis Public Radio
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Senator Brian Williams, D-St. Louis, speaks during a press conference after the senate was adjourned on the final day of the session at the Missouri State Capitol Building on Friday, May 14, 2021, in Jefferson City.

3. Ideas that Ferguson inspired finally got traction

Even as Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson prompted legislators in other states to pass bills intended to foster police accountability, Missouri noticeably lagged behind.

But in 2021, ideas that gained momentum nearly seven years ago, like creating a use-of-force database whenever a police officer kills someone and improving a system to track officers with problematic records, were included in a comprehensive law enforcement bill that overwhelmingly passed both chambers. It was the culmination of months of work among Republican and Democratic lawmakers, police groups, civil liberties organizations, and juvenile justice advocates.

“You know, George Floyd could have easily been me,” said Sen. Brian Williams, D-University City, one of two Black men serving in the Senate. “So I think about Michael Brown, Breonna Taylor. They should be alive today. That was a focus for me.”

A reporter live streams a press conference being held after the House finished the final day of the session on Facebook Live at the Missouri State Capitol Building on Friday, May 14, 2021, in Jefferson City.
Daniel Shular / Special to St. Louis Public Radio
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A reporter live streams a press conference being held after the House finished the final day of the session on Facebook Live at the Missouri State Capitol Building on Friday, May 14, 2021, in Jefferson City.

4. Democrats did matter in passing substantive bills

No one ever claimed that being a Democrat in the General Assembly was easy, especially when the paraty has been outnumbered in the House and Senate for years. But there’s little question that Democrats made an impact this year.

House and Senate Democrats were able to work with Republicans on long-sought items to provide oversight of children's residential facilities and to place curbs on secluding and restraining children. They also provided critical votes in passing the gas tax hike.

House Minority Leader Crystal Quade, who managed to get language regarding state child care subsidies into a widely praised bill that GOP Rep. Hannah Kelly sponsored, said legislative success showed that “our caucus is getting stronger and stronger every single day.”

“And it doesn’t take a supermajority to pass good legislation,” said Quade, D-Springfield.

Senator John Rizzo, D-Kansas City, speaks to reporters during a press conference after the senate was adjourned on the final day of the session at the Missouri State Capitol Building on Friday, May 14, 2021, in Jefferson City.
Daniel Shular / Special to St. Louis Public Radio
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Senator John Rizzo, D-Kansas City, speaks to reporters during a press conference after the senate was adjourned on the final day of the session at the Missouri State Capitol Building on Friday, May 14, 2021, in Jefferson City.

5. Last day showcased Democratic frustration with leadership

But the era of good feeling soured considerably on Friday when Senate Democrats engaged in a filibuster that led to the chamber adjourning unusually early. Senate Minority Leader John Rizzo was particularly upset that Senate President Pro Tem Dave Schatz voted early Friday morning to send a must-pass medical provider tax to a conference committee, which effectively killed the legislation that helps fund the state’s Medicaid program.

Rizzo, D-Independence, said the flameout over the Federal Reimbursement Allowance showcased that GOP leadership wasn’t trustworthy. And because of the failure to pass that bill, lawmakers will have to come back for a special session before the FRA expires in late September.

He also said the failure of Senate GOP leadership to take charge of this issue effectively ceded decision-making power to House leadership.

“Nature abhors a vacuum,” Rizzo said. “And when the Senate leadership can’t deliver, the speaker rules both chambers.”

Senator Bob Onder, R-St. Charles, answers questions from reporters when a press conference ends after the senate was adjourned on the final day of the session at the Missouri State Capitol Building on Friday, May 14, 2021, in Jefferson City.
Daniel Shular / Special to St. Louis Public Radio
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Senator Bob Onder, R-St. Charles, answers questions from reporters when a press conference ends after the senate was adjourned on the final day of the session at the Missouri State Capitol Building on Friday, May 14, 2021, in Jefferson City.

6. GOP infighting raged throughout the session

While the last day of session showcased bitter divides between Republicans and Democrats, most of the conflict during the session revolved around splits within the GOP.

That included a particularly uncomfortable situation in January when Parson wrote a stunningly angry letter to House Speaker Rob Vescovo, R-Arnold, for not letting him use the House chamber for the State of the State address. And much of the conflict over the FRA revolved around senators trying to cut off state funding for certain types of birth control or put into law that Missouri couldn’t provide money to Planned Parenthood.

Some Republicans, including Sen. Bob Onder, R-Lake Saint Louis, were frustrated that legislation that chafed against conservative ideology — like the gas tax — got traction while curbs on eminent domain didn’t even get Senate floor time.

“When fully implemented, we’ll have a half-billion-dollar tax increase in the form of the gas tax,” Onder said. “The tone deafness is incredible.”

Representative Cody Smith, R-Carthage, speaks at a press conference after the House finishes the final day of the session at the Missouri State Capitol Building on Friday, May 14, 2021, in Jefferson City. Smith was a critical figure in the decision not to fund Medicaid expansion.
Daniel Shular / Special to St. Louis Public Radio
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Representative Cody Smith, R-Carthage, speaks at a press conference after the House finishes the final day of the session at the Missouri State Capitol Building on Friday, May 14, 2021, in Jefferson City. Smith was a critical figure in the decision not to fund Medicaid expansion.

7. Lack of Medicaid expansion funding isn't end of the story

While the internal wrangling of the legislature grabbed some attention, the biggest takeaway for Missourians may be how the lawmakers declined to fund Medicaid expansion. Republican leaders cited the long-term financial costs, even after federal money helps pay for the state match.

The legislative inaction prompted Parson to pull the plug on efforts to provide access to the health care program to an estimated 275,000 of the working poor. It sparked outrage among people who felt the issue was settled when voters passed a constitutional amendment on the matter in 2020.

In some ways, though, Parson’s move to not provide the program to people making up to $17,600 a year could actually help expansion proponents, because it could quicken the pace of legal action. But Rizzo said Republicans “want to have all of the adulation to their red meat by saying we are opposing Medicaid expansion knowing on the back end it’s going to happen in a court.”

“It’s a complete political game. It’s a game that they’re playing with people’s lives,” Rizzo said. “And it’s sad. It’s about how fast and quickly they can move to get more power. And unfortunately in the state of Missouri, it’s worked for them.”

Missouri Speaker of the House Rob Vescovo, R-Arnold, hosts a press conference after the House finishes the final day of the session at the Missouri State Capitol Building on Friday, May 14, 2021, in Jefferson City. While not committing to support a special session on unemployment overpayments, Vescovo said the issue isn't over for his caucus.
Daniel Shular / Special to St. Louis Public Radio
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Missouri Speaker of the House Rob Vescovo, R-Arnold, hosts a press conference after the House finishes the final day of the session at the Missouri State Capitol Building on Friday, May 14, 2021, in Jefferson City. While not committing to support a special session on unemployment overpayments, Vescovo said the issue isn't over for his caucus.

8. Some lawmakers want more than two special sessions

It's unclear whether tensions will linger when lawmakers come back for at least two special sessions on the tax to help pay for Medicaid and for congressional redistricting.

And lawmakers want even more extra time. House Elections Committee Chairman Dan Shaul wants a special session to deal with a photo identification requirement to vote and ballot items making constitutional amendments harder to pass. Others may want a special session dealing with overpayments of unemployment benefits, something that was a key issue for members of the House.

“I would say that issue’s not over,” Vescovo said.

Rowden said it isn’t necessarily fair to claim that the session’s clear achievements were somehow negated because of what didn’t pass. He also stressed there’s plenty of time between now and Sept. 30 to pass the FRA bill.

“The Senate is a unique place with 34 very, very unique personalities,” Rowden said. “I think any notion that because we didn’t do something that doesn’t have to be done until September 30 is a somehow a failure — I think it’s a misclassification. I think it’s a very shortsighted view of things.”

Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum
Copyright 2021 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.

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