Republican lawmakers were eager to celebrate a litany of legislative victories Friday night as the 2018 session of the Missouri General Assembly adjourned for the year.
Among the GOP wins: Tax cuts for individuals and businesses, a gas tax hike to fund road and bridge repair, tough new regulations on labor unions and host of other proposals that made their way across the finish line after vexing lawmakers for years.
Yet casting a pall over their revelry is the fate of Gov. Eric Greitens.
Just as the regular legislative session ended, legislators reconvened for a month-long special session that could end in the governor's removal from office.
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House Speaker Todd Richardson, R-Poplar Bluff, said the list of accomplishments is a testament to the success of the 2018 session.
"This session has been the most successful implementation of conservative reforms in the history of this state, bar none,” he said.
But Richardson hinted at the tough work ahead during the special legislative session, as the seven-member committee investigating allegations of wrongdoing against the governor will add three members because "there's a lot of work to be done."
Democrats unsurprisingly did not share GOP enthusiasm for the bills approved in 2018.
Rep. Deb Lavender, D-St. Louis County, said tax cuts will ensure continued underfunding of critical state services; changes to the merit-based system will make it “easier to fire state workers”; and bills targeting labor unions “will mean workers will earn less.”
Nor were Democrats brimming with optimism that the special session that embarked 6:30 p.m. Friday would result in a just outcome.
“The Republican supermajority started this,” Rep. Mark Ellebracht, D-Liberty, said of the push for impeachment. “They better not lose their nerve.”
Some Republicans also have cold feet about the possibility of impeachment.
“Well, first, I don't have any evidence that's been presented to me that shows that the governor needs to be impeached or it even needs to be considered,” said Rep. Jim Neely, R-Cameron. “So my eyes are wide open to see what's being presented, but today I haven't seen any evidence that warrants any impeachment proceedings.”
Senate Minority Leader Gina Walsh, D-St. Louis County, said Greitens has “surrounded himself in scandal and created an empire of corruption. Starting tonight, he will be held accountable.”
Victories and defeats
Republicans worked down to the wire Friday to push through a series of tax cuts.
Their hopes were nearly dashed by a flawed analysis that failed to recognize a $60 million impact in a corporate tax cut bill. Lawmakers caught the error and passed a smaller cut that would lower corporate tax rates to 4 percent from 6.25 percent. The bill changes the way businesses’ tax liabilities are calculated to make up for the loss in state revenue.
A second bill would cut individual tax rates to 5.5 percent from 5.9 percent, starting next year. To offset the cost, the bill also phases out a federal income tax deduction.
“This is an historic day for the Show-Me State,” said Speaker Pro Tem Elijah Haahr, a Springfield Republican who sponsored the income tax cut.
Overcoming years of GOP-led opposition to any and all tax increases, lawmakers on Friday voted to send a 10-cent hike in the gas tax to voters for their approval. If Missourians sign off, the increase is estimated to generate at least $288 million annually for the Highway Patrol and $123 million annually to local governments for road construction.
Republicans also pushed through several bills targeting labor unions.
One bill reworks the state’s prevailing wage law, which sets a minimum wage for workers on public construction projects, like roads, schools, jails and other government projects. Governments would have to pay only the prevailing wage on projects worth more than $75,000, and the bill would weight the average wage and create an alternative wage for counties that don’t have many projects.
The GOP also pushed through a “paycheck protection” bill that requires public unions to get annual permission from their members to withhold dues and spend money for political purposes. It also mandates more public disclosures for public unions and requires union members to vote every three years to retain their representation.
Republicans also successfully passed a bill moving the vote on a referendum that could repeal the law from November to August.
Lawmakers celebrated a $28 billion state budget that fully funded K-12 education and reversed cuts to higher education proposed by Greitens.
A bill capping funds for historic preservation tax credits cleared both the House and Senate on Friday. The same day, the House Budget Committee also announced it would decline to fund a low-income housing tax credit program and credits for wine and grapes, beef, innovation campuses or historic structures.
House Budget Chairman Scott Fitzpatrick, R-Shell Knob, said the low-income housing program was inefficient and the units cost more to build than in any other type of development incentive.
“We want to see reform, and we feel like this is a way to spur that on,” Fitzpatrick said.
Changes to the state’s regulatory framework that utility companies have pushed for years were approved this week. Utilities say it will spark billions in infrastructure investment. Consumer groups say it will only result in higher rates for individuals and businesses.
Lawmakers voted to make Missouri the 39th state to outlaw revenge porn. If signed by the governor, it would be a felony to threaten to disseminate or distribute a sexually explicit image taken without consent.
The Kansas City Star found that Missouri is the easiest place in the country for a 15-year-old to get married, in part because the state has no set minimum age. That could soon change as lawmakers voted to set 16 as the minimum age and prohibit minors from marrying anyone 21 years and older.
Lawmakers spiked a proposal that would have allowed Missourians with terminal illnesses to access medical marijuana in a smokeless form. Numerous efforts to revamp the state’s legal system, particularly in regards to consumer protection law, stalled in the Senate.
Legislation that would have given the attorney general more power to enforce Missouri Sunshine Law died on the session’s last day. Efforts to restrict access to abortion and lift restrictions on guns never got traction.
A push to add sexual orientation and gender identity to the state’s discrimination law also fizzled, but not before it finally received its first committee vote since first being proposed in 1998.
A proposed constitutional amendment requiring that only U.S. citizens be counted in the redistricting process died in the Senate at the 6 p.m. deadline. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Dean Plocher, R-St. Louis, drew criticism as being “racist,” but Plocher said the “one person, one vote” principle of redistricting was being diluted by non-citizens.
Lawmakers once again whiffed on enacting ethics reform, taking up but never voting on a bill in the waning moments of the session that would have asked voters to amend the state Constitution to ban lobbyist gifts.
Legislators had little time to catch their breath from the 2018 session before they had to turn their focus to the cavalcade of scandals swirling around the governor.
They have until June 17 to sort out whether Greitens should be impeached for a host of accusations, ranging from campaign finance violations dating to his 2016 run for governor to accusations of coercive and violent sexual misconduct from a woman with whom Greitens had an affair in 2015.
“I trust the process,” said Rep. Jean Evans, R-St. Louis County. “Our leadership has laid things out. They've gotten input from members who are all over the map in terms of how they feel about the governor. Everyone wants a thorough, transparent process and I feel very confident that that's what we will have.”
Greitens has begun trying to rally his allies in the House in the hopes of staving off any impeachment proceedings. His attorneys have proposed a process that would look more like a trial, with both sides calling and questioning witnesses, offering evidence and making arguments.
The House committee that’s been investigating the governor appeared to resist the governor’s proposed process. Most presume the committee will hold a hearing, after which any articles of impeachment would move through the process like any other piece of legislation.
It takes 82 of 163 House members to impeach.
If the House votes to impeach, the Senate would appoint seven judges to hold a trial. If five judges agree that Greitens should be removed from office, Lt. Gov. Mike Parson would take over and finish his term, which runs until January 2021.
Rep. Kevin Engler, R-Farmington, said that if the House committee determines there’s enough evidence to impeach, the challenge will then be convincing a majority of Republicans to go through with it.
If Greitens is impeached with a minority of the 114 House Republicans joining with 47 Democrats, Engler said, the governor will try to “convince people that it's a conspiracy.”
Fitzpatrick said hiccups in the criminal trial against Greitens had also occupied House members’ minds.
“I think that the bungled legal proceedings are weighing heavily on a lot of people because it gives the public perception that things aren’t entirely above board, when in fact, from the committee level, the legislative proceedings are completely above board,” Fitzpatrick said.
While the process is still up in the air, one thing if for certain: It’s unlikely Greitens’ fate will be determined for months.
“It’s going to be a long, hot summer with a three-ring circus in town that’s going to keep us in the news for a long time,” Lavender said, “and in an unflattering way.”