Government & Politics

Missouri Governor Parson breaks through conservative bloc in final week of session

Missouri Gov. Mike Parson takes oath, promises a ‘fresh start’

Missouri Gov. Mike Parson took the oath of office on June 1, 2018, in Jefferson City, becoming the state's 57th governor. He replaces Eric Greitens, who resigned.
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Missouri Gov. Mike Parson took the oath of office on June 1, 2018, in Jefferson City, becoming the state's 57th governor. He replaces Eric Greitens, who resigned.

A week ago, it appeared that Gov. Mike Parson would have little to show for his first legislative session as the state’s chief executive. Despite Republican supermajorities in the House and Senate, none of the bills he championed had reached his desk.

A new jobs training program and a scholarship fund for adults returning to college were in limbo. Changes to tax incentives for business expansion led to accusations he’d created a slush fund.

And a plan to sell $350 million in bonds to rebuild 251 dilapidated bridges had been greeted with deep reservations in the Missouri House about taking on new debt.

Parson’s biggest obstacle: a bloc of six Republican state senators with their own passionate ideas about what did, and did not, constitute conservatism.

But by the final day of legislative session Friday, Parson’s core priorities—workforce development and infrastructure—made it across the finish line. And Republicans across both chambers were united that day over the passage of a near-total abortion ban.

For Parson, the game changer was his late-in-session announcement that General Motors needed an incentive package to invest $1 billion in its Wentzville plant. While conservatives disputed his contention that GM’s decision was contingent on approval of the incentives, the announcement injected a new element of urgency to the debate.

Opponents also discovered that no amount of stalling—the principal method for killing legislation in the Missouri Senate— could have forced Parson to back down.

“Sometimes, it’s about sitting at the table trying to figure out solutions, working out problems and making sure we can move forward and keep focused on what Missourians want,” Parson told reporters at his session-end press conference.

Parson promised calm when he moved up from the lieutenant governor’s office last May, after Gov. Eric Greitens, mired in scandal and investigations, resigned. He lauded his staff and agency directors for being able to hit the ground running “under the circumstances.”

“Last year when I became governor, I’m not sure what any of us expected,” Parson said. “I’m not sure I knew what I expected.”

It was widely expected that Parson, a two-time state senator with deep knowledge of the legislative process, would have little difficulty attaining his agenda.

However, his time in the Missouri Senate didn’t include the Conservative Caucus. The group of six senators banded together to amplify the power of the filibuster, aimed at almost all of his workforce development bills.

“Whenever you are talking about new government programs, conservatives will tend to resist that,” state Sen. Bob Onder, R-Lake Saint Louis, told reporters. “Whenever you are talking about new spending, conservatives will tend to resist that. And governors like to have big, bold proposals.”

In the Missouri House, Budget Chair Cody Smith, bolstered by support from the House Conservative Caucus, proposed spending $100 million of general revenue—the same pot of money used to fund schools, higher education and other state programs—for bridge repairs instead of Parson’s bond program.

The infrastructure fight carried over to the Missouri Senate, where the Conservative Caucus filibustered the bill. They eventually brokered a deal with Missouri Senate Republican leadership. The bond proposal was reduced to $300 million, with larger payments to retire the debt over a shorter period of time. And the bonds would only kick in if the state received a federal grant.

The Missouri House passed the bonding resolution Friday shortly before the session’s 6 p.m. deadline.

“Ultimately the governor was able to achieve his goal and I think we improved it and saved the taxpayers quite a bit of money,” Onder said.

But the Caucus effectively killed a statewide program for prescription monitoring (PDMP), leaving Missouri for at least another year as the only state without one. The bill never got any floor time in the Missouri Senate for the first time in years.

Senate President Pro-Tem Dave Schatz, who has carried the bill in years past, said the program played a role in the ebb and flow of legislation.

“The reality was the conversations in the backrooms were had on PDMP and what was going to be done and how things were going to be leveraged against PDMP,” Schatz said.

At the heart of the Caucus’s opposition was its distaste for databases that could compromise privacy, possibly identifying gun owners with drug issues that might threaten their ability to keep firearms.

The caucus position created friction between the two chambers. In the House, state Rep. Holly Rehder, who has tried to pass PDMP for seven years, refused to let bills backed by the caucus leave her House committee for days.

“As elected officials, we should never go along with those who arbitrarily pick and choose what they are going to support or oppose based off their ever-changing definition of “conservatism,” especially not when it’s clearly for political purposes,” Rehder wrote in an open letter to the General Assembly in the final days of the session.

The resistance shown by the Conservative Caucus only went so far. Their major push against the governor’s workforce bills lost steam after they were tied together with $50 million in tax credits for the Wentzville plant, in exchange for a $1 billion investment.

In the last week of session, with dozens of bills still left to debate and approve, Senate Republican leadership made clear they would stay on the issue until the caucus caved. That happened in hour 27 of the filibuster.

“Best I could tell, he batted 1.000,” Senate Majority Floor Leader Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, said, of Parson’s success in getting his agenda passed.

He didn’t get everything, however.

Parson had implored the Missouri legislature to reform the low-income housing tax credit program, shut down by Greitens in 2017. But both chambers stood firm. The Missouri Senate wanted only to curtail the state’s match with federal funds while the House called for a hard cap of $123 million and the ability for the tax credit to be transferred.

“It was something I couldn’t get back through the Senate,” Rowden said, noting that opposition came from both Democrats and Republicans.

Even an hour before the session was to end, Parson said he thought there was a way forward. Ultimately, neither side budged and the fate of affordable housing was left uncertain. Parson has hinted that he would revive the program on his own authority.

While the Senate Conservatives filibustered, Democrats stayed mostly out of the limelight. Only in the last week, when they pushed against the sweeping abortion bill, did there seem to be an impasse. It was resolved in marathon negotiations between Democrats, the Senate Majority Caucus and Conservative Caucus.

“The reality is the Republicans were going to shove this bill down our throat no matter what, the only question was going to be whether we could get some of the bad provisions out the bill,” state Sen. Scott Sifton, D-Affton, told reporters.

Senate Minority Leader Gina Walsh conceded Parson got much of his agenda, but noted she largely agreed with his emphasis on job creation and infrastructure.

“I think how it was a year ago, “ Walsh, D-Bellefontaine Neighbors, said. “So it was kind of pleasant that you have someone you could sit and talk to and work with. Not necessarily always agree, but the work atmosphere around here was a lot better than what it was a year ago.”

Though Parson was able to get a majority of his goals, the divide among Senate Republicans won’t go away any time soon. Conservative state Sen. Bill Eigel has said he will work to grow the Caucus through coming elections.

“Ultimately, I think we were able to serve as the conscience of the (Senate Republican) caucus,” Eigel, R-Weldon Spring, said. “I think we will continue those conversations from this year as we move into next year.”

When asked, Onder said he believed Parson was “a conservative.”

“You can be under the same ideological banner but see a given issue in a different way,” he said.

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