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GOP dominates Missouri legislature, but Kansas City Democrats say ‘the dysfunction is obvious’

Overhead shot of a large room filled with desks. Men and women standing with their hands over their hearts.
David A. Lieb
Members of the Missouri House of Representatives recite the Pledge of Allegiance as they begin their annual legislative session on Jan. 5 in Jefferson City, Missouri.

As the 2022 session kicks off, Kansas City’s Democratic lawmakers say they’re dealing with a new “extreme right wing faction” that could gridlock the legislative process.

As Missouri legislators prepare to tackle this year’s legislative agenda, Jefferson City’s 34 state senators also have to contend with a bitter divide and growing factions within the Republican majority that may slow down the legislative process.

Though Republicans are the majority party in the Senate, they face divisions in their ranks, with 17 Republicans aligned with GOP leadership and seven who are part of the conservative caucus. That leaves the 10 Democratic senators — four of whom represent the Kansas City metro — as a super-minority in the Senate. That also leaves a true 18-vote majority absent in the Senate.

With all the infighting in the GOP, Senate Minority Floor Leader John Rizzo (D-11), who represents northeast Kansas City, Independence and Sugar Creek, said his party’s 10 votes might be the biggest current majority in the Senate.

“Right now, I'm pretty confident that this Democratic caucus is one of the best caucuses we've had in the state Senate for a very, very long time,” Rizzo said. “We work very well together. And everyone is very patient and articulate, and just does a great job representing their district. And we are ready and willing to work on reasonable legislation to do good things for the taxpayers in the state of Missouri.”

Though the Senate may be off to a rocky start — with tensions still simmering from last year’s session — lawmakers must begin addressing a litany of policy priorities, such as finalizing congressional redistricting maps, allocating $2 billion in COVID funds from the federal government and fully funding an expanded Medicaid system. Less than a week into the legislative session, 403 bills have already been filed in the Senate.

The divide in the GOP follows last year’s special session on renewing a Medicaid provider tax and a meeting in Jefferson City of GOP senators that excluded members of the conservative caucus. That meeting ended the legislative session on a sour note; Rizzo said the Democratic Party feels it was lied to at the end of the session.

“The best way that I can describe the Missouri Senate right now would be saying it’s fractured,” Rizzo said. “I think that there’s a lot of work that needs to be done. And we’re ready to do that and where we are trying to find some common ground and rebuild trust so that we can move forward and have a functioning Senate.”

Two Kansas City area GOP senators, Tony Luetkemeyer (R-34) and Dan Hegeman (R-12), did not return calls seeking comment. Sen. Mike Cierpiot (R-08), whose district includes Jackson County, declined to comment.

Still, Democratic Senators like Lauren Arthur (D-17), who represents Kansas City, North Kansas City and Clay County, said the party is in its strongest position yet.

“It's because of those factions and divisions that we have an opportunity to become kingmakers,” she said. “We all have different priorities. But I think we're looking for opportunities to work with the majority caucus. And sometimes it may be the more conservative faction, and other times it may be the more mainstream Republicans. But we're free agents. And we're willing to work with anyone on our priorities.”

Working with a fractured GOP

Bad blood and a lack of trust among lawmakers is plaguing the start of this year’s legislative session, which could lead to a slow legislative session until trust is rebuilt.

“There's the obvious division between Democrats and Republicans. Then within the Republican caucus, there's now a new kind of extreme right wing faction,” said Sen. Greg Razer (D-07), whose district covers Jackson County. “When all of those sides are sort of warring against each other in the Senate, any individual senator can create gridlock, and the more gridlock that is created, the slower things move.”

With the bad blood left over from last year, Rizzo said, rebuilding trust will be key.

“What we saw at the end of last session was, for lack of a better term, people breaking their word,” he said. “So we have got to figure out how we're going to move forward and rebuild that trust, before we can really even get to the policy discussions.”

Arthur said some Republicans have allowed their personalities and political ambitions to undermine relationship building among Senate lawmakers.

“Democrats aren't the problem. Democrats are there to work, and we are the adults in the room,” Arthur said. “... I will say there's been an issue with trust in our Republican leadership. And I think there are a number of problems in the Senate. The dysfunction is obvious to anyone who spends just five minutes listening in.”

Senate Democrats representing the Kansas City area said they are prepared to work with Republican lawmakers on legislation where they share common ground. But being the super-minority party in the Senate also allows them to push back against what they see as harmful GOP-sponsored bills.

“We're going to be here when the most extreme legislation comes up from the other side of the aisle,” Sen. Razer said. “We'll be here to try the best we can to stop it, to try to soften the impact. And then when we can, we're going to work together with our Republican colleagues to get things done for the people of the state.”

Arthur noted that Republicans are behind a raft of restrictive measures, including limiting access to the ballot box, not fully funding Medicaid and undermining the state’s initiative petition process.

“My job is going to be to fight all of those things, and ensure that we maintain the integrity of our elections, and that we are doing everything we can to preserve and strengthen our democracy,” Arthur said.

Democrats’ legislative priorities

The Legislature faces a March 24 deadline to pass a supplemental appropriations bill for the nearly $2 billion in federal funds available to Missouri. Rizzo said he hopes to use the funds to put more money into schools and education, particularly early childhood education.

Rizzo also said supporting safer communities is a priority, and he recently introduced a Back the Blue Act that would repeal state legislation passed last year barring Missouri law enforcement agencies from cooperating with federal law enforcement on gun crimes.

“It's really hard if a police officer can't work with the federal government on a variety of levels, enforcing gun laws to have safer neighborhoods, when a lot of times it comes down to guns being used illegally in different areas and in Kansas City and St. Louis and other urban areas,” Rizzo said.

Arthur, who has a background in education, said that will be legislative priority for her during this legislative session. Arthur said she’s working on bills focused on strengthening literacy in Missouri and on competency-based education.

“Giving schools the resources and the tools they need to best serve their students — that's the kind of legislation I'm interested in focusing on,” she said. “I think we would do right by our students and our children to home in on those kinds of issues, as opposed to playing into really divisive, political hot topics to win campaigns.”

Razer said he’s looking for opportunities to fund projects that will benefit Kansas City. He said he hopes the Republican majority can put aside their fighting to allocate the federal money available to the state.

“We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to truly invest in our state and in our people, and work on some transformational projects for Kansas City and throughout the state,” Razer said.

As KCUR’s Missouri politics and government reporter, it’s my job to show how government touches every aspect of our lives. I break down political jargon so people can easily understand policies and how it affects them. My work is people-forward and centered on civic engagement and democracy. I hold political leaders and public officials accountable for the decisions they make and their impact on our communities. Follow me on Twitter @celisa_mia or email me at celisa@kcur.org.
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