If someone were to ask me who is the scariest person in the Missouri government right now, I would say Kurt Schaefer.
This is quite a distinction. The state Capitol, as we have learned, has its share of intern harassers and after-hours miscreants. Schaefer, the Republican senator from Columbia, is neither of those.
He is a different kind of scary — a politician with the talent and ambition to acquire power and a willingness to misuse it.
Schaefer is chairman of the Missouri Senate’s appropriations committee. That gives him an outsized voice in who or what receives state funding. He also is a candidate to be Missouri’s next attorney general. Those two roles have proven to be a dangerous combination.
Barely a week goes by any more without Schaefer setting off some type of tremor.
There he was on Thursday berating staffers at the state Department of Health and Senior Services at a “sanctity of life committee” hearing, grasping for some kind of irregularity in Planned Parenthood’s application to resume abortion services at its Columbia clinic.
There he was last month suggesting that the General Assembly should wipe out Kansas City’s earnings tax in retaliation for the City Council’s ordinance increasing the minimum wage.
And the legislature isn’t even in session.
Schaefer’s frenetic activity has to do with his attorney general campaign. He has a GOP primary opponent, Josh Hawley, whose impeccable conservative credentials include arguing before the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of “religious freedom” in the contraceptives case involving the Hobby Lobby stores.
Hawley teaches at the University of Missouri School of Law in Columbia, which has granted him a leave of absence without pay in order to campaign. The university is now juggling multiple Sunshine Law requests related to that decision. Schaefer’s allies want to know if Hawley received any undue consideration in obtaining the leave. Hawley’s allies want to know if Schaefer hinted at budgetary consequences if the university granted the leave.
So far, there is nothing concrete to confirm either suspicion. But the early nasty tone of the attorney general’s race has put Schaefer in pitbull mode.
A lawyer and former Missouri assistant attorney general, he entered political life as a moderate. He gained a reputation for being smart and pragmatic and landed the coveted appropriations chairmanship. He won re-election easily in 2012.
Then everything changed. Looking ahead to his statewide race, Schaefer made a hard, screeching turn to the right. And he began using his Senate chairmanship as political muscle.
When word got out in 2013 that the Department of Revenue was scanning driver’s license documents, including concealed carry permits, into a database, Schaefer proposed cutting the budget of the motor vehicle division by a third. Better not to issue licenses at all than to violate the privacy of gun owners, he reasoned.
This year, Schaefer used the budget process to make Medicaid funding contingent on the state hiring for-profit managed care companies to administer much of the program. Using threats and sheer stamina, Schaefer got the legislature to go along with the dramatic change without hearings or even much information. The state is now trying to figure out how to make the transition work.
Schaefer’s power-mongering is another toxic aspect of Missouri government. People inside of government are overly cowed by him. And people outside of government already are weighing the repercussions of donating to Schaefer’s political opponent.
If Schaefer wants to make a stand for good government, he’ll resign from his appropriations chairmanship to avoid the appearance of more power plays while he’s running for attorney general.
If he won’t — which seems likely — then the Senate’s incoming new leadership should take the decision out of his hands.