The Missouri Senate conservative caucus formed just last year, but its six senators are already shaping the direction of Jefferson City politics. The caucus was among the staunchest supporters of a sweeping anti-abortion bill, which is being challenged in court. They also broke with their party to oppose one of Republican Gov. Mike Parson’s key workforce development proposals (though it eventually passed).
And the caucus could get some concessions in the 2020 session using their threat to filibuster as a bargaining chip, though it also could further the division within the Republican Party if they kill priorities like a prescription drug monitoring program.
All of it should be viewed through the lens of the upcoming election, too, when Senate seats will be up for grabs and the caucus will look to expand its influence.
“We were able to pass one of the most strict anti-abortion bills anywhere in the country when we passed the so-called heartbeat bill at the end of the last session,” said caucus member Sen. Bill Eigel from Weldon Spring. “At the same time, I think sometimes we also got a lot of attention because we were resisting policies that we didn't think were in the best interest of the state.”
It was the final week of the 2019 session, and Republicans had a lot to wrap up. It’s also when the rift between the conservative caucus and GOP leadership was laid bare.
Parson was pushing a workforce development bill that authorized up to $50 million in tax credits for General Motors, which has a plant in the St. Louis suburbs. It also allowed the state to give out upfront tax breaks instead of waiting for a company to meet job creation requirements, as well as establishing a scholarship program for adults to get training in high-demand industries.
The conservative caucus said the bill amounted to corporate welfare, and filibustered for more than 27 hours, talking about how quiet Twitter is overnight and reading from books like “A Case for Trump.” Eventually, the caucus stood down — without any major concessions — so that another priority could be passed: a sweeping anti-abortion bill.
“What more six conservatives in the Senate could have done? You know, I spent a lot of time thinking about that,” said Sen. Bob Onder, who represents said parts of St. Charles County. “And I think there were a few things we could have done differently but at this point, it's water under the bridge.”
Onder said filibustering is the “last resort,” and the caucus is focusing this session on changing legislation through amendments and negotiations.
“I know they frustrated both Republican leadership and some of the Democrats,” according to Democratic Sen. Lauren Arthur, who represents parts of Clay County. “And so it presents a really interesting question about just how much legislation will be able to get through (this session).”
The 2020 session
A likely point of tension for this session is a statewide prescription drug monitoring program (PDMP). Advocates are in their eighth year of trying to remove Missouri’s distinction of being the only state without one. Bills for a PDMP, which would help prevent people from getting an opioid prescription from multiple doctors, have made it through the House in past sessions but stall out in the Senate.
It’ll be in the conservative caucus’ crosshairs, Eigel said: “There are a lot of things I would probably be willing to filibuster. But the PDMP program, in particular, is something I think that has strong opposition, not just from the conservative caucus, but from several members of the Republican delegation.
"... (A)t this point, I haven't seen a path that a possible program could get through without the threat, without the execution of a filibuster,” he added.
Other members of the conservative caucus, like Warrensburg Sen. Denny Hoskins and Onder, said while they oppose a prescription drug monitoring program, they aren’t sure just yet if they’d filibuster.
One area where the Senate bill’s sponsor, Republican Tony Luetkemeyer, sees compromise is the number of years patient data is kept before it’s deleted.
“Under my current legislation, it’s three years. There have been some conversations about whether or not we could shorten that period,” said Luetkemeyer, who represents Platte and Buchanan counties. “It's a conversation at least theoretically open to if it's something that could get the bill to a debate.”
The conservative caucus also wants to roll back a key provision from the so-called “Clean Missouri” constitutional amendment, which passed with 62% of the vote in 2018. An Associated Press analysis found that Democrats would benefit from a provision in the amendment making competitiveness and partisan fairness key criteria in drawing state legislative districts.
Members of the conservative caucus have introduced bills that would make competitiveness and partisan fairness the last criteria to be considered, instead prioritizing contiguous and compact districts. That proposal would have to get approval from voters; it has the support of Republican leadership.
Other priorities include reducing the top rate of individual income tax, which would be offset by collecting internet sales tax. Conservative caucus members have also introduced bills that would allow charter schools beyond just St. Louis and Kansas City to any city with a population larger than 30,000 or any county with a charter form of government.
With six solidly Republican Senate seats up for grabs come November, the conservative caucus has a chance to grow its membership.
“I think there’s a little tension brewing behind the scenes about who has influence and power in the Missouri Senate, and that may spill over into some disputes,” according to Arthur.
This includes competitive primaries in Senate District 33, which includes West Plains and Mountain Grove; Senate District 29, which includes Branson and Monett; and Senate District 25 in the Bootheel.
However, the caucus will also have to defend one of its seats: Koenig may have a competitive race.
“We have a responsibility to have a conversation about the proper role of government. And I'm not sure without the conservative caucus, that that could have occurred (last session),” Eigel said. “So I'm encouraged as we go into [the] next session, and I think you're only going to see more senators elected to the Missouri Senate that share our perspective.”
Aviva Okeson-Haberman is the Missouri government and politics reporter at KCUR 89.3. Follow her on Twitter: @avivaokeson.