On the Trail: Some big takeaways from the Missouri General Assembly's final week
For the most part, the dwindling moments of the 2016 session of the Missouri General Assembly were familiar: Paper got tossed. Press conferences transpired. And lawmakers get to spend the next few months far away from Jefferson City (with the exception, of course, of the legislators that represent that town).
But the last week of session did provide some notable insights and surprises: From the passage of a wide-ranging gun bill to the somewhat surprising resignation of a state senator, there was plenty of news to keep bespectacled reporters busy.
So perhaps it’s instructive to flip open my proverbial notebook (not a real one, since my handwriting is atrocious) to examine some common themes and loose ends from the last few days of the legislative session.
Put this in the “time flies” category: It’s been nearly a year since Todd Richardson became speaker of the Missouri House. And like any legislative leader, not all of the Poplar Bluff Republican’s agenda items made it to the finish line — especially his efforts to overhaul ethics.
But in a notable twist from previous years, Democrats have heaped a lot of praise on Richardson for his leadership after the startling resignation of former House Speaker John Diehl last year. For instance: State Rep. Jeremy LaFaver, D-Kansas City, noticed a big difference in how the House operated.
“I hope other people view the speaker’s leadership on this issue will not be in the measurement of the number or whatever bills pass. The change in demeanor and tenor of I think the entire building, but certainly the House chamber, is nearly 180 degrees different from last year to this year,” LaFaver said. “I mean quite frankly, whatever we pass up here is not going to instill a massive amount of trust that has been lost over decades with the American public and politicians.
“We can’t say, ‘We passed a lobbyist gift ban and people back home will say what honorable people there are in Jefferson City now,'” he added. “That’s not going to happen.”
In his end-of-session press conference, Gov. Jay Nixon made it a point to talk about how important it was for Richardson to succeed in his new post. That was notable, since the Democratic governor has publicly quarreled with numerous House speakers.
A softer fist?
A least one Democrat, though, had a slight and interesting critique of Richardson’s leadership style: State Rep. Mike Colona, D-St. Louis, said Richardson tended to be less rigid with his caucus than his predecessors.
He said that might seem like a generous development, but it lead to some unintended consequences — such as controversial bills coming to the floor. For instance, the House spent a lot of time in the final couple of weeks debating a “Personhood” amendment aimed at banning abortion — something Colona suggested may not have gotten a lot of floor time under other speakers.
“I think that what’s resulted in, ironically, is a Republican caucus that’s more fractured,” Colona said. “Because it’s almost like the iron fist of a Tim Jones or a Steve Tilley kept the jihadists at bay. But Todd’s leadership skills are different from the standpoint of if you’re a jihadist and you want to have your day, you can have your day. It doesn’t mean that I’m going to support it and it’s going to pass. But I’m at least going to give you the opportunity to take advantage of the system and do what you’re elected to come down here and down.”
“A Black Angus bull”
Over at the Missouri Senate, the session ended in a less acrimonious way than people were expecting. That’s because it was widely assumed that Republicans would use a “previous question” motion to try and override “paycheck protection” — which would have instilled a lot of hostility among the Democratic caucus.
But that didn’t happen, because an attempt to override the legislation failed to scrape up enough votes. The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Dan Brown, conceded on Friday afternoon that he wasn’t exactly thrilled by the outcome. But he took a philosophical approach to coping with legislative loss.
“I’m always disappointed to lose,” said Brown, R-Rolla. “But I’ll tell you what: I still practice veterinary medicine. [I’ve practiced] large animal medicine for many, many years. And sometimes when it’s you and a rope and a Black Angus bull, you lose. You dust yourself off, you get back up, you re-evaluate.”
One of the Republicans who voted against the override — Sen. Gary Romine, R-Farmington — cited “convictions from his district” for his decision.
“I’ve seen some numbers as high as 63 percent pro-labor or labor families, and that was my conviction,” said Romine, who is running unopposed for re-election year.
The long and winding road
Anybody who’s followed Sen. Rob Schaaf’s legislative career knows that he’s consistently advocated for two things: Substantially paring down a process to approve the construction of hospitals (known as “certificate of need”) and infusing “transparency” about the prices of medical procedures.
“Certificate of need” is probably here to stay for awhile. But the St. Joseph Republican noted that the second item on his wish list was placed into a wide-ranging health care bill that made onto the governor’s desk.
“And what this provision does is allow people to call up medical providers and find out how much their own out-of-pocket costs will be in advance of getting a service or having a test or whatever,” Schaaf said. “What this means is that instead of calling up and having no idea how much it will cost you out of pocket, you’ll be able to call up and get a price. And then you can call up another provider and get a price under your own insurance, which will allow competition to take effect.”
When asked how he finally got this type of policy past the finish line, Schaaf pointed to Sen. David Sater’s strong support. He also cited groups of providers that “really worked hard to help keep that in.”
“I just kind of stayed in the background and let them carry it,” said Schaaf, known in the Senate for his effective filibustering skills. “But for me, that’s probably one piece of legislation that is way underestimated the importance of it. It’s going to turn out to be a really big deal.”
The tranquil end of the Senate’s session was in stark contrast to earlier this year, when Senate Democrats were irate over the “previous question” of a constitutional amendment aimed at legally shielding businesses or individuals that deny certain services to same sex couples.
That use of political capital ended up being for naught after a House committee killed that measure. Sen. Jill Schupp, D-Creve Coeur, wondered aloud if using the previous question turned out to be a blunder for Republicans.
“I think that we were extremely disappointed that they would use that,” Schupp said. “I think that what we saw happen was as the 39-hour filibuster progressed and national news started to pick up what was going on here in Missouri, I think the Republicans had some pause about what their plan of attack and what their plan of action was. And I think the fact that they [previous questioned] actually didn’t necessarily work in their favor.
“I think that even though they went along with leadership’s decision, I think that there was probably a lot of internal strife about that,” she added.
The amendment’s sponsor — Sen. Bob Onder, R-Lake Saint Louis — said “you can always look at things later and question how you handle things.”
“The Senate was very committed to passing religious liberty legislation,” Onder said. “And we did so. Of course, I was disappointed that it didn’t get across the finish line and to the vote of the people.”
Overhauling ethics was a big priority for Republican leadership at the beginning of session. And it was no doubt spurred on after two lawmakers (Diehl and Sen. Paul LeVota, D-Independence) resigned after they were accused of acting inappropriately around interns.
Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard was asked if he thought the environment had changed very much for women. With his wife standing a few feet away, the Joplin Republican said the Capitol “is a microcosm of the population as a whole.”
“If I was going to think about doing something stupid, I’d ask her and think about what my mother would say,” Richard said. “Chances are if I checked those two boxes, I wouldn’t do anything stupid. So I’d encourage everybody else: See what your mother would say and check what your wife would say.”
When Nixon was asked a similar question, he said both Richard and Richardson were sincere in trying to make the Capitol’s environment better. But near the end of his answer, he remarked: “Just one member resigned this year.” That was allusion to how state Rep. Don Gosen, R-Ballwin, stepped down after an extramarital affair became public.
“Recorder of Leaves”
My last two visits to the Missouri Capitol happened to correspond with Diehl and Gosen’s high-profile resignations. And just as I thought that streak was about to end, Senate Minority Leader Joe Keaveny, D-St. Louis, announced his departure — albeit for the much, much, much less salacious reason of accepting a new post as an administrative law judge.
This prompted St. Louis Post-Dispatch food virtuoso Ian Froeb to dub me “the Recorder of Leaves.” That’s a reference to a running gag about how every Missouri politician seems to want to become recorder of deeds in their home county.
We’ll have to see if this streak remains intact the next time I visit Jefferson City. If another person steps aside, it may be fair to compare me to professional wrestling superstar The Undertaker.
On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics.