With only three weeks left before the General Assembly adjourns for the year, the Missouri Senate is mired in gridlock and no one seems confident lawmakers can dig themselves out.
A litany of Republican legislative priorities hangs in the balance.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, a St. Louis Democrat. Even though Republicans hold supermajorities in the House and Senate, and control the governor’s mansion, they seem on the verge of imploding, she said.
“It’s actually happening right before my eyes.”
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Conservative lawmakers eye the quickly shrinking calendar and worry that bills easing restrictions on businesses or stiffening them on abortion providers will fall by the wayside.
Even Democrats, who are largely watching the turmoil from the sidelines, voice concerns that lawmakers may have to adjourn without putting Missouri in compliance with the federal Real ID Act, a situation that could result in residents being prohibited from using their driver’s license to board commercial airplanes.
But the biggest issue by far is the state’s budget.
Lawmakers face a May 5 deadline to get the budget to Gov. Eric Greitens. Their timeline was already hurt when the governor turned in his budget proposals two weeks later than normal.
The Senate plans to finalize its budget proposal next week, leaving lawmakers a week to work out differences between the House and Senate on the state’s $27 billion spending plan.
At this point, the differences are many.
The House fully funded the state’s K-12 education formula. The Senate has refused to do so. Neither side has indicated it’s willing to budge.
The House eliminated a $52 million tax credit for senior citizens who rent their homes. Democratic opposition in the Senate has put that idea at risk, leaving the Senate cutting other areas to make up the funding difference.
Both House and Senate leaders support funding an expansion of Medicaid managed care that is set to go into effect May 1. But Sen. Rob Schaaf, a St. Joseph Republican and longtime critic of managed care, has threatened to derail the budget if that expansion isn’t rolled back.
Schaaf notes that the contracts for managed care, a $2 billion program, begin May 1. But the budget won’t be finalized until after that and won’t go into effect until July 1. He also points out the state has yet to receive a required federal waiver allowing it to expand managed care statewide.
Thus, Schaaf argues, the expansion is unconstitutional and must be stopped. But an amendment he proposed in the appropriations committee to roll back the expansion was defeated, setting up a fight when the full Senate debates the budget next week.
To get a picture of how the Senate has functioned this year, one needs look no further than this week .
A group of freshman Republicans took over the Senate for hours on Tuesday in retaliation for GOP leaders using the previous holiday weekend as leverage to help pass a controversial prescription drug monitoring program.
That was followed by a Democratic filibuster of a bill eliminating a tax credit for senior citizens. After hours of Democratic stall tactics, the bill was set aside early Wednesday morning.
On Thursday, two Republican senators joined the fray, holding up Senate business for hours in opposition to a bill supported by GOP leaders that would change the way utility rates are set.
But no one ate up more floor time than Schaaf, who spent hours this week discussing his problems with managed care expansion and the lack of progress on legislative ethics reform.
His procedural hijinks have garnered him the scorn of his fellow Republicans in the House, who on Thursday killed a bill partly because Schaaf is the Senate sponsor.
“Mr. Speaker, with everything going on in the Senate, why are we helping forward anything on the senator from St. Joe’s agenda?” said Rep. Glen Kolkmeyer, an Odessa Republican, while speaking Thursday in opposition to Schaaf’s legislation.
Thursday afternoon, fellow Republican Sen. Caleb Rowden of Columbia rose to publicly call Schaaf’s ethics into question. Rowden noted that when Schaaf is in Jefferson City, he lives in a room he rents from a registered lobbyist.
Rowden went on to say the lobbyist who acts as Schaaf’s landlord represents a company that would have benefited from a bill Schaaf sponsored.
Schaaf balked at the accusation, and the discussion quickly escalated.
“If you are going to stand there and accuse me of doing something illegal or immoral or unethical, “ Schaaf said, “then I’m going to look at every one of your bills and see if that entity gave you a campaign contribution.”
Shortly after the exchange, the Senate adjourned for the week.
Gov. Eric Greitens, a Republican who has been a frequent target of Schaaf over his reliance on dark money, got into the mix on Friday, when a nonprofit founded by his campaign staff launched a series of digital ads attacking Schaaf.
The governor’s senior adviser, Austin Chambers, said the group decided to target Schaaf because his delay tactics are putting important measures at risk.
Schaaf, who sponsored legislation that would force nonprofits like the one attacking him to disclose their donors, said he was saddened “the governor lacks the courage to confront me directly but rather relies on his dark money donors to impugn my stands for liberty and the downtrodden, and against corruption.”
Amidst all the turmoil, the top Republican in the senate — President Pro Tem Ron Richard of Joplin — continues to face pay-to-play accusations over his relationship with a top GOP donor. A fellow Republican senator recently said the situation warrants the attention of law enforcement, and a government watchdog group formally asked for the U.S. attorney’s office to look into the matter.
Senate Majority Leader Mike Kehoe, a Jefferson City Republican, said the slow pace of the Senate shouldn’t come as a surprise.
“It’s the Senate,” Kehoe said. “Things bog down at the end of every year.”
And while the pace has been particularly slow in the Senate this year, and the in-fighting among Republicans particularly disruptive, the bills that have managed to make their way over to the House could be considered historic accomplishments — such as a reworking of the state’s discrimination law or new restrictions on labor unions.
But even as Kehoe expresses optimism that the Senate will right the ship, he stops short of saying definitively that the next three weeks will be smooth sailing.
“I don’t predict anything in the Missouri Senate,” Kehoe said. “I stopped that my first day here.”