Gun control, Medicaid and redistricting are expected to be the most contentious issues Missouri lawmakers will take up this legislative session.
House and Senate members return to the state Capitol on Wednesday, and the governor is to deliver his State of the State address a week later on Jan. 15.
Democrats in both chambers say gun control and urban violence will be at the top of their list of priorities.
Senate Minority Leader Gina Walsh, D-St. Louis, said she knows that it will be difficult to get any measures passed through the Republican-dominated Legislature, but that after a deadly summer in St. Louis and elsewhere, it’s time to make changes.
“The public at large, I don’t think they realize how little laws we have on guns right now… what kind of wild west we have going here,” she said. “I don’t know what it’s going to take, what’s got to happen before people wake up and realize we’re killing our kids on a daily basis and nobody’s doing anything. It would seem to me that sensible people can come up with some sensible solutions that both sides can accept.”
Walsh said she’d like to pass so-called red-flag laws and stricter background checks. Gov. Mike Parson has said he supports both of these ideas and is prepared to ask the Legislature to get on board.
Parson also wants to see a state law passed to prohibit minors from purchasing handguns. There is a federal law, but without a state law it is harder for prosecutors to charge young offenders.
At a meeting with mayors from St. Louis, Kansas City, Springfield and Columbia, Parson called these changes a “reasonable ask.”
“What can we really put into effect? We can name 10 different things, but the reality of it is, if you can’t do seven of the 10, what are we doing wasting our time talking about it?” Parson said in a press conference after the meeting.
But House Speaker Elijah Haahr, R-Springfield, said that he’d be concerned about passing any regulations surrounding firearms and that his Republican caucus likely wouldn’t support them, either.
“I’d be very hesitant until I saw specific proposals, because historically we take our oath to the Constitution and Second Amendment very seriously,” Haahr said.
Instead, Haahr wants to focus on law enforcement retention and providing the right tools to get violent offenders off the streets.
“The vast majority of the crime happens by a very small minority of criminals,” Haahr said. “Finding those criminals and getting them off the streets is the most important key to getting ahead of this crime epidemic in the major cities.”
Haahr, who is in his last year as speaker, said his top priority is passing a balanced budget. He said this year’s budget is unique and could play an important role in setting Missouri up for a successful financial future.
“There’s possible market correction,” Haahr said. “There’s a fairly large lawsuit pending in the state of Missouri we may have to pay out at some point, and there’s the possibility of Medicaid expansion. I think this is the last fairly traditional, normal budget year we’ll have for a while.”
The lawsuit Haahr is referring to is over pay for Missouri Department of Corrections employees. The decision is being appealed, but if that’s not successful, the state could have to make a $100 million payout.
Transportation funding and infrastructure needs will be an important part of budget negotiations. In 2019, lawmakers passed a bonding plan to allocate general revenue for transportation needs. Missouri also received money from the federal government to pay for infrastructure across the state, but that’s not a long-term solution.
The Senate will likely discuss a gas tax increase, but Haahr said that won’t be considered in the House.
“We put a gas tax on the ballot a couple years ago, and the voters voted it down,” Haahr said. “I don’t think they have any appetite for a tax increase, and I don’t think the House has any appetite for a tax increase.”
Parson, who supported a gas tax hike in 2018, said that there needs to be a permanent answer for infrastructure and that even though voters are hesitant to pass tax increases, that’s likely going to be at least part of the solution.
“The problem doesn’t go away simply because we did a bonding of bridges across the state,” Parson said. “It really helped. But that’s not going to cure the problem for the state of Missouri, so we've got to find other solutions for that.”
An issue that may make it onto the ballot this year is Medicaid expansion. A petition initiative circulating calls for an expansion that would draw down federal dollars to cover about 90% of the program. Democrats say expansion is a way to make sure Missourians have access to health care.
But Haahr said it’s a bad move that doesn’t make sense financially, and that he believes more Missourians would lose access.
“If you expand Medicaid in the state, a lot of medical providers in the state will simply limit or cap the number of Medicaid patients they see because their reimbursement rates are so low,” he said.
House Minority Leader Crystal Quade, D-Springfield, predicted that Medicaid expansion will not only make it onto the ballot, but that voters will approve it. After more than 100,000 people have been kicked off the Medicaid program since the beginning of 2018, she is more focused on streamlining enrollment.
“Expansion or not, we have serious issues with our call centers, with the funding around that, with just the procedures in general,” Quade said. “We need to be making sure that we are giving enough funding for what we have now, as well as when it does pass.”
Another priority for Democrats in the health care realm is passing a statewide prescription-drug monitoring program to help fight the opioid epidemic. Missouri is the only state in the country that does not have a monitoring program.
Haahr said it will again likely pass in the House, but the Senate is not expected to approve the idea. The concern in recent years has been about privacy.
“We’ve had databases in the past that have either been hacked or turned over to the feds for various reasons, and people’s privacy has been compromised,” he said.
Haahr said that he has similar concerns but that past proposals have properly addressed these issues.
Major metropolitan areas in the state have city or county monitoring programs, but a statewide network is still a priority for many.
Clean Missouri redistricting
Although voters overwhelmingly approved the Clean Missouri amendment in 2018, some lawmakers want to change the redistricting provisions that were included. Sen. Bill Eigel, R-Weldon Spring, said it’s expected to be the first topic discussed in the Senate.
"In spite of that measure getting 62% of the vote, I don’t really know what the people said yes to,” Eigel said. “Was it Sunshine Law changes? Was it campaign contribution limit changes? Was it redistricting changes?”
Both Republicans and Democrats have concerns with the amendment, but Quade said she intends to push back on any proposed changes.
“Not everyone in our caucus agrees with every piece of Clean Missouri, but the voters overwhelmingly told us that’s what they wanted,” she said.
Haahr did not outline any specific changes to Clean Missouri, which calls for a nonpartisan state demographer to draw legislative districts.
Other major issues the Legislature is expected to consider include sports betting, video gambling and an online sales tax.