Government & Politics

Missouri legislature calls it a session after one final spasm of dysfunction

The Missouri General Assembly closed its 2017 with a series of contentious votes.
The Missouri General Assembly closed its 2017 with a series of contentious votes.

The 2017 session of the Missouri General Assembly came to a chaotic conclusion Friday, with the Senate mired in procedural gridlock and House leadership forced to swallow legislation it opposed in order to save state aid for elderly and disabled Missourians.

Despite four months of on-and-off dysfunction, the Republican supermajority adjourned for the year pointing to a litany of policy wins they said far outpaced any legislative session in recent memory.

“I’m tired. It’s been a long year,” said Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard, a Joplin Republican. “We have accomplished more this year than I ever thought I would see in my tenure.”

Democrats didn’t share in the majority party’s enthusiasm, noting that even though Republicans held two-thirds of the seats in the General Assembly, along with the governor’s mansion, they passed only 75 bills this year — a little more than half of the number approved last year and the fewest since 2000.

“If Missourians can be thankful of anything from this session, it’s that the damage was mitigated due to the majority party’s inability to govern,” said House Minority Leader Gail McCann Beatty, a Kansas City Democrat. “As bad as this session was for worker rights and victims of illegal discrimination, things could have been much worse were it not for the GOP’s total dysfunction.”

McCann Beatty said the overarching theme of the Republican agenda was “pro business and anti-people.”

House Speaker Todd Richardson, a Poplar Bluff Republican, praised GOP efforts, saying lawmakers sent a message “loud and clear that Missouri is once again open for business.”

“I cannot tell you how proud I am of the talented men and women of our House Republican majority,” he said.

But at a statehouse news conference held shortly after lawmakers adjourned for the year, Gov. Eric Greitens seemed to agree with Democrats, praising the session’s GOP victories but hinting he might soon call the legislature back into session to deal with bills that didn’t pass.

He wouldn’t speculate on what those bills might be, and said he had no timeline for when he would make a decision.

Big bills

Lawmakers may have passed fewer bills than normal, but the ones Republicans did get across the finish line were historic.

Republicans passed legislation they’ve been pushing unsuccessfully for decades: a right-to-work law allowing employees in unionized workplaces to opt out of paying unions for the cost of being represented.

They passed legislation reworking the state workers’ compensation system, and approved a bill banning local governments from giving preferential treatment to union contractors.

They sent several bills to Greitens that make sweeping changes to Missouri’s legal system, most notably a controversial measure making it much more difficult for a worker to sue a former employer for discrimination or harassment.

Legislation passed to put the state into compliance with the federal Real ID act, assuring Missourians will be able to use a driver’s license to board commercial airplanes and enter federal buildings. The University of Missouri-Kansas City’s new downtown arts campus is a step closer to reality, after lawmakers voted to borrow $48 million to help pay for it.

The state’s $27 billion budget fully funds K-12 public schools for the first time, to the tune of roughly $3.4 billion. But although school choice was a major campaign pledge of Greitens’, efforts to expand charter schools statewide and offer tuition tax credits for students to attend private schools fizzled.

There was no movement whatsoever on finding a funding fix for Missouri’s crumbling roads and bridges, and legislation aimed at enacting more stringent regulations on abortion providers became a casualty of Senate gridlock.

But arguably the biggest legislative priority left undone was ethics reform.

The House overwhelmingly approve a ban on lobbyist gifts to elected officials in the first month of the session. But it never got much traction in the Senate. Momentum for the idea collapsed when Greitens, who was ethics reform’s biggest champion during the 2016 campaign, starting using nonprofits to raise anonymous campaign money.

Final meltdown

Perhaps the biggest storylines of the 2017 session were the dysfunction in the Senate and a late-session showdown between House and Senate leaders over funding for in-home and nursing home care.

Both issues defined the session’s final day.

The Senate ground to a halt around 1 p.m. Friday, when Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, a University City Democrat, began a filibuster she said would last until the constitutional deadline for adjournment at 6 p.m.

The move was in retaliation for the House voting down a bill that would have allowed for the buyout of homes near the West Lake Landfill, a radioactive waste site just northwest of St. Louis where neighbors have long complained that exposure to the landfill causes asthma, cancer and other chronic illnesses.

When it became clear her filibuster was going to kill a whole host of bills, Republican leaders decided to take up legislation preventing local governments from increasing the minimum wage above the state level.

St. Louis has already raised its minimum wage, and Kansas City voters were going to get the chance to follow suit later this year.

They then employed a procedural maneuver to cut off debate and force a vote. Democrats responded with procedural hijinks of their own, and it took three hours for the bill to finally pass. The Senate adjourned for the year shortly after the final vote, knowing Democrats would not let them move on any other bills.

While the Senate was melting down, the House was wrestling with how to find $35 million to avoid kicking 8,000 elderly and disabled Missourians off state aid for in-home and nursing home care.

The Senate proposed avoiding those cuts by authorizing a review of special state funds to find excess money. But House Republican leaders, led by Budget Chairman Scott Fitzpatrick of Shell Knob, said the plan was a nonstarter. The House refused to take a vote on the Senate proposal, and on Friday attempted to attach an alternative funding mechanism to a Senate bill to force senators to accept it.

When Republicans cut off debate and forced a vote on the bill, state Rep. Deb Lavender, a St. Louis County Democrat, began shouting at House leaders, “Shame on you, 8,000 people will lose their health care. How can you do this?”

Lavender continued to shout while House Speaker Pro Tem Elijah Haahr, a Springfield Republican, tried to bring the chamber to order. Several of her colleagues attempted to calm her until she eventually left the chamber.

But with the Senate unable to move forward on any legislation, the House blinked.

Shortly before adjourning for the year, the House took up the Senate proposal and passed it.

“I think this bill is awful,” Fitzpatrick said. “That being said, I am one member, and I am going to allow you all to make this decision.”

Greitens has until mid-July to sign legislation sent to him in the final days of the session. Asked Friday about several high-profile bills, the governor said he would review all legislation on his desk before making any public statements about his intentions.

Jason Hancock: 573-634-3565, @J_Hancock