Gov. Mike Parson just finished up his first legislative session as governor. And by any objective measure, it was a good one for the GOP chief executive.
He wanted the Republican-controlled Legislature to approve his ideas around workforce development and transportation spending, and those lawmakers followed through. He was also able to deal with warring factions within his party, most notably six conservative senators that at times held up his priorities.
Parson was able to reset things after the chaos that engulfed Eric Greitens prompted him to resign from the governorship.
“Sometimes it’s about sitting at a table, trying to figure out solutions, working out problems and making sure we move forward and keep focused on what Missourians really want,” Parson said during a press availability with reporters on Friday as the 2019 session was drawing to a close.
But just because Parson had more success than Greitens doesn’t mean he got everything he wanted — or that what was sent to his desk was universally popular. That’s especially the case for a far-reaching abortion ban that critics believe is extreme — and could end up backfiring on Parson and the GOP.
To wrap up the 2019 session, here’s six observations about Parson, Republican lawmakers and the Democratic minority:
One of the common criticisms of Greitens’ short governorship was how he didn’t engage enough with Republican lawmakers crucial to passing his agenda. At the end of the 2017 session, he even compared senators to third-graders for not sending enough bills to his desk.
Parson took no such posture. Both his staff and the governor himself communicated face-to-face with members of the Legislature. Case in point: Parson was spotted walking into Senate President Dave Schatz’s office before the Senate adjourned on Friday.
Lawmakers from both parties concluded that Parson’s efforts to reach out were far better than his gubernatorial predecessor. And it paid dividends when the Senate was able to send him his entire workforce development agenda and incentives to expand a Wentzville General Motors plant during the last week of session.
“Without hyperbole, I believe it to be the most successful policy session that I’ve ever been a part of in my seven years in the Legislature,” said House Speaker Elijah Haahr, R-Springfield.
Getting some of Parson’s priorities to his desk wasn’t always easy. And a major roadblock was the six-member Conservative Caucus, which at times held up Senate debate in order to gain concessions on major issues.
That strategy had mixed success. The caucus was able to get the Senate to make changes on a bonding plan to fix bridges, but not on an economic development bill that included Parson’s workforce development agenda. In fact, Parson ended up getting everything he wanted in Sen. Lincoln Hough’s bill even after the caucus filibustered for more than 24 hours.
But the six senators were successful at preventing passage of a prescription-drug-monitoring program aimed at stopping opioid abuse. Sen. Cindy O’Laughlin, R-Shelbina, contended the measure amounted to an invasion of privacy.
“If there are solutions to be found, we’re willing to work with people,” O’Laughln said. “But I don’t think that the 99% of the public and their families should be swept into a database when it’s 1% of the public that has the issue.”
The caucus’ tactics are clearly rubbing some GOP members the wrong way. Rep. Holly Rehder, a Sikeston Republican who sponsored PDMP, called members of the caucus hypocrites for opposing a statewide program — but not local ones set up in individual cities and counties.
“Their brand of 'conservatism' has proven if anything, only to be consistently inconsistent,” she said in a statement.
For someone who doesn’t follow Missouri legislative politics, it may not seem like a big deal that the GOP-controlled Senate didn’t use the so-called ‘previous question’ motion to forcibly end filibusters.
But in many respects, that decision allowed the Senate to function on Thursday and Friday — and pass more bills that could impact Missourians’ lives. That’s because the result of a so-called ‘PQ’ is a complete shutdown of Senate business.
GOP senators were able to avoid such a scenario in passing Rep. Nick Schroer’s abortion ban, which came after hours of behind-the-scenes negotiations.
Republicans have used the PQ on other abortion-related bills throughout the years — including to move to institute a 72-hour waiting period in 2014. And while the Senate Democrats were united against this year’s legislation, Sen. Jill Schupp said “if we weren’t able to find a way to work with them in some way, they were going to give us an even more harsh version of the abortion bill.”
“So we wanted to do what we could to eliminate as many provisions as possible, otherwise if we continued the filibuster or did not try to operate in good faith, they would have gone to the previous question,” said Schupp, D-Creve Coeur. “We made the determination for a couple of reasons we needed to do what we could to work together. But the most important reason was we had the best interests of women and their families at the forefront.”
Schroer’s bill will almost certainly face a legal challenge. So whether enough verbiage that could actually withstand judicial scrutiny was taken out of the bill remains to be seen. Schupp said “the procedural tact we take is dependent on what will bring the best outcome for Missouri’s women.”
Republicans chose not to bring up a ballot measure that would have given voters a chance to undo a new state legislative redistricting system known as Clean Missouri.
That constitutional amendment surprisingly failed in committee after GOP senators didn't show up, and senators didn’t want to go through all the procedural hoops to revive the measure.
“We ultimately had to make a decision about whether we wanted to go down that road, or whether we wanted to have an effective last couple of days,” said Senate Majority Leader Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia. “I think the second piece of it was there were a number of folks in our caucus who respected and respect the rules and process enough that just didn’t want to go down that road.”
It’s an almost certainty that Republicans will bring back an effort to get rid of the Clean Missouri state legislative redistricting system next year.
Before the 2019 session kicked off, Parson made it clear that he wasn’t going to restart the low-income housing tax credit unless lawmakers overhauled the program. And he wasn’t subtle about it. Parson, a former House and Senate member, told St. Louis Public Radio that “he’s been around long enough to know how it works: stall, stall, stall to the last and say, ‘Whoop, we ran out of time.’ That’s not going to happen.”
But that’s exactly what happened. The Senate and House could not agree on a final bill to pare down and restructure the program before the end of Friday. And if Parson sticks to his guns, that means the state low-income housing tax credit will have remaind frozen since December 2017.
Some lawmakers want Parson to reverse himself, contending that keeping the incentive dormant hurts the state’s ability to cultivate housing for the poor, elderly and disabled.
“Should he waver? I think he should,” said House Minority Leader Crystal Quade, D-Springfield. “We have people who need help. And this program may not be perfect, but it’s better than nothing — which is what we have right now.”
Parson didn’t say explicitly at his end of session press conference whether he’d move to restart the program. It should be noted that he opposed Greitens’ successful bid to halt the tax credit in 2017. And a political action committee aimed at assisting Parson has taken $25,000 last year from prominent low-income housing tax-credit developer Mark Gardner.
Both Quade and Schupp contend that the best way for Democrats to fight back against the state’s abortion restrictions is to defeat Republicans in state legislative races.
And opponents of Schroer’s legislation point to the lack of exceptions for women that become pregnant due to rape or incest as especially problematic for voters. In fact, President Donald Trump tweeted on Saturday that he was in favor of exceptions for rape, incest and life of the mother.
Rep. Doug Beck noted how then-Congressman Todd Akin’s U.S. Senate bid imploded in 2012 after his controversial comments about rape and abortion.
“Everybody thought that was extreme then,” said Beck, D-Affton. “And I’m having a hard time believing that seven years later, that the entire Republican caucus has moved in that direction and the people have, too. I just don’t believe that is the case.”
Many of the lawmakers who voted for Schroer’s bill made their opposition to abortion rights a central aspect of their respective legislative campaigns. And Parson himself believes that Missourians are with him and the GOP, adding that voters knew his position on the issue throughout his long tenure in state government.
“Look, I think that all life has value to it. All life does,” Parson said. “And I’ve been pretty clear about that my entire career. And I’m going to stand up for people that don’t have a voice. And everybody should have a right to life, and I believe that.”
St. Louis Public Radio’s Rachel Lippmann contributed information to this report.
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