Government & Politics

Tumultuous year for the Missouri legislature comes to a close

Missouri House Speaker Todd Richardson acknowledged a tough spring for Missouri government but said he took pride in new laws adopted in the session that ended Friday.
Missouri House Speaker Todd Richardson acknowledged a tough spring for Missouri government but said he took pride in new laws adopted in the session that ended Friday. The Associated Press

The 2015 Missouri General Assembly sputtered to its required adjournment Friday at the end of a five-month session marked by scandal, tragedy and, in the end, several important changes to the state’s laws.

On the final day, lawmakers passed a measure preserving more than $3.5 billion for Medicaid.

Through the session, legislators also tightened rules for access to welfare benefits and food stamps. They approved a small bump in funding for schools and agreed to rein in cities that rely too heavily on traffic tickets for revenue.

Yet they left other critical issues unsolved.

An attempt to raise fuel taxes for the state’s roads collapsed, as did any significant ethics reform. Requirements for body cameras for police and restrictions on the use of deadly force — responses to last summer’s riots in Ferguson — also fell short. And lawmakers again rebuffed all attempts to extend Medicaid health insurance to the state’s working poor.

Still, the 2015 session will likely be best remembered for events outside the General Assembly’s legislative chambers.

Republican House Speaker John Diehl resigned in disgrace Friday, two days after The Star revealed his improper relationship with a state Capitol intern. House members picked Rep. Todd Richardson of Poplar Bluff to replace him.

In February, Missouri Auditor Tom Schweich took his own life, concerned at least in part with the nasty tone of politics in the state. A month later, Schweich’s longtime spokesman further shook the state’s political community by committing suicide.

Diehl spoke to lawmakers before leaving the Capitol on Friday. He apologized again for his indiscretion but insisted history will view his service kindly.

“I hope someday, when I’m forgiven for my mistakes, that my picture and my portrait is more complete,” he said.

Diehl’s speech provided a surreal start to an unusual legislative day.

Typically, the final day in Jefferson City is marked by frantic negotiations and last-minute deals for any lingering legislation. But Diehl’s stunning departure, coupled with Democratic anger over Republican parliamentary tactics in the Senate, ground most legislative work to a halt.

The logjam broke late Friday when Senate Democrats ended their protest and agreed to renew a fee on hospitals and clinics that care for Medicaid patients. The decision will bring in more than $3 billion from the federal government and likely negates the need for a special session of the legislature later in the year.

Senators adjourned three hours before the 6 p.m. deadline. The House closed for business at 5:50 p.m.

Republican leaders called the session a success.

“This has been a very difficult session at times for a variety of reasons,” said Richardson, the newly minted House speaker. “But as we’ve had a chance to take stock of it, we’re excited about what we were able to accomplish.”

In prepared remarks, Gov. Jay Nixon applauded some of the legislature’s accomplishments and criticized others. But he saved his sharpest comments for the scandal surrounding Diehl.

“The past week has been a jarring reminder of what happens when people lose sight of what they’re here to do,” he said. “That’s why I hope that, as they return to their districts this summer, members go home and get some perspective.”

Other Democrats blasted the legislature’s work.

“The 2015 session is over, and for working families it couldn’t come soon enough,” said Senate Minority Leader Joe Keaveny of St. Louis. “For our caucus, it’s not so much what we accomplished but what we stopped.”

Here are the highlights of bills passed — and stalled — during the 2015 session:

▪ Social welfare reforms. Over the governor’s veto, legislators approved new regulations for the state’s primary welfare system, called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. As of Jan. 1, TANF clients will be limited to 39 months of benefits over a lifetime. Work and training requirements have also been increased.

Missourians must be employed to be eligible for food stamps. Lawmakers passed a bill reducing unemployment benefits to 13 weeks in some circumstances, but Nixon vetoed the measure. There may be an attempt to override the veto in September.

▪ Court reform. The legislature passed, and Nixon is expected to sign, a bill limiting fines and penalties for traffic violations in the state’s municipal courts. Cities must not collect more than 20 percent of their revenue from traffic fines, down from 30 percent in previous law. St. Louis area municipalities can collect no more than 12.5 percent of revenue from traffic fines.

The measure is a response to perceived abuse of traffic tickets in Ferguson.

▪ The budget. Lawmakers passed a $26 billion state budget, which Nixon signed. It provided for a modest increase of $84 million for K-12 schools as well as additional funding for higher education. The budget also moves more of the state’s Medicaid recipients into privately managed health care systems.

Lawmakers approved $300 million in borrowing for improvements at colleges and other state-owned buildings, including the Capitol.

▪ Malpractice law. Lawmakers passed and Nixon signed a bill capping non-economic damages in medical malpractice cases at $400,000. “Catastrophic” malpractice injuries, and those that result in death, are capped at $700,000.

▪ Right to work.” The General Assembly passed legislation that prohibits unions from charging fees for non-members. Nixon has threatened to veto the bill, and the procedure used to pass the bill in the Senate so enraged Democrats they bottled up other legislation in the session’s final days.

▪ Local authority. The General Assembly told cities and counties they could not set their own minimum wages or restrict the use of plastic bags in grocery stores. Nixon hasn’t signed the bill — and some Kansas City officials think they could impose a higher wage here if they act by Aug. 28, when the measure would take effect.

Lawmakers gave Kansas City permission to extend its sales tax for the bus system. It changed the rules for students who wish to transfer from unaccredited school districts — a measure that has not been signed by the governor.

Some other high-profile proposals failed to pass:

▪ Ethics rules. Campaign contributions remain unlimited in Missouri. A proposal to limit lobbying by former legislators failed. Diehl first allowed, then prohibited, lobbyist-funded committee meetings at restaurants and country clubs.

Legislators and the public scrapped over the right to videotape and record audio at legislative committee hearings. Those disputes remain unresolved.

▪ Transportation. Plans to raise Missouri’s fuel taxes to pay for additional road and bridge construction failed to find traction. Even some anti-tax Republicans said they regretted the failure to find a solution for underfunded roads.

▪ Medicaid. Lawmakers again refused to expand Medicaid coverage to those making too much for traditional Medicaid but too little to qualify for federal tax subsidies in health care exchanges.

▪ Rams stadium. Lawmakers considered but did not pass a bill requiring legislative or voter approval for state spending on a new football stadium in St. Louis. Nixon has said he has the authority to commit the state to additional borrowing for a proposed $1 billion facility in St. Louis.

▪ Voter ID and expanded early voting. Neither became law.

▪ Anti-bullying. Proposals aimed at protecting children from bullying stalled when the Senate became stuck on other issues.

To reach Dave Helling, call 816-234-4656 or send email to dhelling@kcstar.com.

To reach Jason Hancock, call 573-634-3565 or send email to jhancock@kcstar.com.

Related stories from Kansas City Star

  Comments