To say Kansas City leaders spent the 2016 legislative session playing defense would be an understatement.
Kansas City’s earnings tax, which accounts for nearly half the city’s general fund, was on the chopping block as GOP lawmakers pushed to repeal it.
An ordinance the city passed last spring regulating vehicle-for-hire companies like Uber and Lyft was the target of legislators seeking to replace it with more lenient statewide standards.
A “religious freedom” amendment to Missouri’s constitution that local business and government officials complained could be a disaster for the region’s economy began picking up momentum early in the session.
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It seemed every day there was a new proposal causing city leaders sleepless nights.
“Win, lose or draw, this has been the roughest legislative session of my entire career,” said Bill Gamble, who has lobbied for Kansas City since 1985 and worked in the Capitol since 1973.
But by 6 p.m. Friday, when the Missouri General Assembly adjourned for the year, each of those bills was dead.
Despite holding supermajorities in the Missouri House and Senate, Republicans were unable to get many of their top policy priorities across the finish line. In the end, the 2016 legislative session may be remembered as much for the bills that failed as the ones that were approved.
To be sure, Republican leaders had plenty to celebrate.
“Thanks to the hard work of my colleagues, we had a very successful session,” said Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard, a Joplin Republican. “We passed legislation that will help improve the communities across the state.”
On the session’s final day, the GOP pushed through a wide-ranging gun bill that would establish a “stand your ground” law, allowing a person to use deadly force in self-defense without the duty to retreat when faced with a perceived threat.
The bill also contains a provision making it legal for people to carry concealed weapons without a permit anyplace they can currently carry guns openly. The bill also allows a houseguest to use deadly force to defend themselves in someone else’s home.
For more than a decade the GOP has been pushing to enact a photo ID requirement for Missourians to cast a ballot. This year they finally struck a deal with Democrats to clear the way for voter ID legislation to go to Gov. Jay Nixon.
A separate bill that would amend the constitution to permit a photo ID requirement also passed and will be on the ballot this fall — a needed step, since the Missouri Supreme Court has previously deemed voter ID unconstitutional.
“I think we finally put this issue to bed for a couple years,” said Rep. Tony Dugger, a Hartville Republican who has repeatedly sponsored voter ID bills. “This is probably the biggest legislative achievement of my career.”
Senate Democrats were quick to declare the compromise a victory, pointing out that the voter ID bill sent to the governor still allows those without a photo ID to cast a ballot. They simply have to sign a statement attesting to their identity. It also requires the state to pay for a free ID for anyone who needs one, as well as pay for the underlying documents needed to get an ID, such as a birth certificate.
Despite the concession made by Republicans, Nixon hinted at a veto.
“Everybody knows I think we should make it easier for people to vote,” he said. “That’s a bill that I look at and I don’t start by saying, ‘How can I make this work?’”
On Friday, Richardson was able to point to three ethics reform bills that lawmakers approved and the governor signed: a six-month waiting period before lawmakers can become paid lobbyists, a ban on lawmakers getting paid to be political consultants while in office and restrictions on the use of campaign funds by former lawmakers.
“I’m really proud of what we were able to get done,” Richardson said.
But House leaders weren’t ready to declare victory on ethics reform.
The House has pressed for much more sweeping reforms, including a ban on lobbyist gifts to lawmakers. The Senate repeatedly watered the proposals down and openly rejected the idea of curbing lobbyist freebies, briefly flirting with capping free meals before setting the idea aside.
“It’s extremely sad that a small group of senators are falling on the sword to defend their ability to take free stuff from lobbyists,” said Rep. Justin Alferman, a Gasconade County Republican who sponsored the gift ban. “I’m not going to stop on this. I’m happy to be a legislative pariah and continue screaming about this.”
Richardson said a lobbyist gift ban would be the first bill passed by the House next year. If it continues to run into problems in the Senate, he said, the House may address the issue through internal rules.
Despite the shortcomings of the ethics reform bills, Richardson won bipartisan praise for pushing to change a culture at the Capitol that had become tarnished by allegations of widespread sexual harassment.
The House implemented policies regarding sexual harassment and interns. And when Rep. Don Gosen, a St. Charles County Republican, became embroiled in a sex scandal, Richardson was quick to call for his resignation.
“The leadership of Todd Richardson has been a changing influence in the House,” said Rep. Jeremy LaFaver, a Kansas City Democrat not running for re-election. “The feeling around this building is not quite 180 degrees different from last year, but the tolerance for shenanigans that occurred around here is much, much less. There are adults in this building willing to hold people to a higher standard.”
Nixon agreed that the culture seems to have improved under the leadership of Richardson, adding that it was important for the new speaker to succeed after the previous speaker was forced to resign after The Star revealed his inappropriate relationship with an intern.
“It was really important to our state that Todd get off to a good start,” he said. “I really wanted him to succeed as speaker.”
He also noted, half jokingly, that one sign of progress is that “just one member (of the legislature) resigned this year.”
Among the other proposals Republicans celebrated Friday were a pair of tort reform measures, a ban on traffic ticket quotas, caps on fines for municipal ordinances and regulations on fantasy sports companies.
Yet the list of high-profile legislative casualties in 2016 is just as long.
In perhaps the session’s most dramatic moment, the Senate fell one vote shy of overriding Nixon’s veto of a bill enacting new restrictions on public employee unions. The bill has long been a GOP priority.
The bill passed the Senate in March with 22 Republicans and Democratic Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal of University City in support, giving it exactly the number of votes needed for an override. But shortly after midnight Thursday, Chappelle-Nadal flipped her vote and killed the bill.
The issue that dominated the public’s attention for more than a month, and nearly derailed the Missouri Senate, was a “religious freedom” amendment. It would have allowed certain individuals and businesses to cite their religious beliefs to refuse service to same-sex couples.
Gay rights advocates and the business community joined forces to try to kill the legislation, and it ultimately died in a House committee.
The state budget contains provisions cutting off public funds to Planned Parenthood, but the governor has said he is looking for ways to circumvent the funding cut.
A sweeping bill enacting strict new regulations on abortion providers was approved by the House but was never brought up for debate in the Senate. Same goes for an amendment to the constitution that would have granted the right to life for “unborn human children at every stage of biological development.”
The Senate approved an increase to the state’s gas tax to help pay for road and bridge repairs. The House never took a vote on the idea.
Democrats said progress on numerous issues was stifled by election year politics.
“It just felt like the entire year that fringe issues took priority over things like funding schools or finding revenue for roads, the bread-and-butter stuff we should be finding solutions for,” said Rep. Lauren Arthur, a North Kansas City Democrat. “It’s an election year, and the political grandstanding seems to have gotten the best of the legislature.”