Government & Politics

‘Power to kill things’: Missouri’s most influential elected position is up for grabs

Missouri state representatives on Tuesday will select the next speaker of the House. The candidates: Republicans Elijah Haahr of Springfield, Robert Cornejo of St. Charles County and Holly Rehder of Sikeston.
Missouri state representatives on Tuesday will select the next speaker of the House. The candidates: Republicans Elijah Haahr of Springfield, Robert Cornejo of St. Charles County and Holly Rehder of Sikeston. Missouri House Communications

Perhaps the most consequential election of the year in Missouri takes place Tuesday afternoon, and most of the general public has no idea it’s even happening.

The 116 Republican members of the Missouri House will vote Tuesday on who should take over for Speaker Todd Richardson after he leaves office at the end of 2018.

As the leader of the Missouri House, the speaker is considered the most influential elected official in state government. The person who holds the job wields unparalleled influence on which bills become law and which ones never see the light of day.

And barring an unprecedented political shift in next year’s legislative elections, the next speaker will lead a supermajority with more than enough votes to implement their agenda.

“They will set the tone and help decide what issues get prioritized after I exit the stage,” said Richardson, a Poplar Bluff Republican who can’t run for re-election because of term limits. “We have three great candidates.”

Republicans will choose either Elijah Haahr of Springfield, Robert Cornejo of St. Charles County or Holly Rehder of Sikeston.

Each expounds a conservative ideology, supporting efforts in recent years to cut taxes, limit access to abortions, roll back regulations on businesses and weaken the influence of organized labor.

The difference, each concedes, will be in style and focus.

Haahr, 35, an attorney who is considered the frontrunner, is speaker pro tem of the House. That experience, he said, is why he’s the best candidate.

“I’ve spent the last year understudying for (Speaker Richardson),” he said. “I’m in negotiations with the Senate. I’m in the meetings with the governor. I can give the Republican caucus the best opportunity to pass legislation.”

Cornejo, 34, also an attorney, has served as chairman of the judiciary committee and general laws committee. He says he’s focused his legislative career on handling complex bills that needed a sure hand to guide them through the process.

“I have a record of getting big legislative items across the finish line to the governor’s desk,” he said. “Because of that, I think I’m better equipped for the speaker’s office.”

Rehder, 47, who owns a cable telecommunications contracting company, said the last three speakers have been attorneys, just like her current rivals. She says she worries that they may not be as willing to put up a fight and “go to the mat” for GOP priorities as she will be.

“When it comes to attorneys, they sometimes overanalyze things. They get 12 opinions before they move forward with something,” she said. “I’m very bottom line. I’m a fighter. I go for it. That’s what we need right now. Our window could be very short. This speaker will have supermajorities in both houses and a governor to sign the bills. That may not last forever.”

One issue sure to be influenced by the next speaker is ethics reform.

Richardson was elected speaker after the resignation of Rep. John Diehl, a St. Louis County Republican who was revealed to be exchanging sexually charged texts with a 19-year-old House intern.

After being chosen to replace Diehl, Richardson vowed to improve the public’s tarnished perception of the legislature by changing the culture of the Capitol. A key piece of that plan was ethics reform legislation, such as banning lobbyist gifts to elected officials.

Richardson said he thinks ethics reform will continue to be a priority regardless of who is chosen to replace him.

“We’ve had some success, but there’s still a lot unfinished business,” he said.

Haahr agreed, saying that as speaker he’d follow Richardson’s example on the issue.

“Ethics reform will always be one of the priorities for the House,” he said.

Cornejo said that while Richardson has focused a lot of energy on banning lobbyist gifts, he will train his sights on closing the revolving door between legislating and lobbying.

In 2016, lawmakers approved a six-month waiting period before lawmakers could become lobbyists. Cornejo wants to see that extended.

“I have no intention of becoming a lobbyist,” Cornejo said. “It’s not why I joined the legislature. I don’t think it’s right to build those relationships and then turn around six months later and be able to use those relationships to get a job.”

Rehder said ethics reform “isn’t really one of my priorities.”

“It’s not one of the things my constituents are asking about,” she said. “If the caucus decides it wants it to be a priority, I would do that. But me personally, it’s not mine.”

Rehder does, however, support lengthening the cooling-off period. She lobbied for the cable industry for three years before joining the House but says she has no intention of lobbying again, and has been assured by Cornejo that he doesn’t either.

“I haven’t had a chance to have a conversation with Elijah about that,” she said.

Haahr voted in favor of the six-month waiting period bill in 2016. He said he hadn’t heard the whispers going around the Capitol that he might be interested in lobbying after he leaves office, but his current plan is “to go back to practicing law so I can spend more time at home.”

Both Haahr and Cornejo agree that the next speaker will have to invest time and energy into issues that have bedeviled lawmakers for years. That includes finding a way to fund repairs to Missouri’s roads and bridges, as well as to update the state’s electrical grid.

Rehder said her focus will be on reworking the state’s tax credit system and pushing through changes to the state’s prevailing wage laws.

While most people in the general public probably aren’t aware the next speaker is being elected next week, each of the candidates for the job says whoever wins will have a big impact on the everyday lives of Missourians for years to come.

“The state legislature is where the rubber hits the road,” Cornejo said. “Almost everything, from state courthouse to the roads people drive on to their kid’s school, is impacted by the legislature.”

Haahr notes that if a governor doesn’t like a bill, he can veto it. But then that veto can be overridden by the legislature.

“If a speaker has an objection to a policy, he can refuse to refer the bill to committee or refuse to put the bill on the calendar,” he said. “And there’s no overriding that decision. As a speaker, you may not have the power to pass anything you want. But you do have the power to kill things.”

Republicans will vote at 3:30 p.m. Tuesday in Jefferson City, on the eve of the annual veto session. The person selected will become speaker in January 2019, and serve until the end of 2020.

Jason Hancock: 573-634-3565, @J_Hancock