As the Missouri General Assembly hits its week-long spring break, lawmakers are mulling over what they’ve accomplished so far — and bracing for an array of items that haven’t reached the legislative finish line.
While lawmakers in both the House and Senate have been able to tackle issues that have historically stalled, such as curtailing the low-income housing tax-credit program, priorities that Gov. Mike Parson holds near and dear have run into opposition from his own party.
There’s still plenty of time for lawmakers to act until they adjourn in mid-May. But it’s clear lawmakers from both parties have more on their minds than Parson’s workforce development and transportation plans. Some want to expand gambling, restrict abortion rights and try to counteract a proposal to merge St. Louis and St. Louis County.
With Republicans controlling both the executive and legislative branches, Parson is cognizant that his party needs to produce some tangible results.
“We have to do the things that affect the everyday moms and dads and the children out there for the future,” Parson said. “And there’s no reason Republicans can’t lead on that. And sometimes we get off on the side roads, and we need to stay focused: What is it that Missourians want, and how do we deliver those services?”
Win some, lose some
Parson spent the lion’s share of his State of the State speech sketching out how he wanted to expand workforce-development programs and launch a bonding plan to fix Missouri bridges. While some of his workforce-development agenda has passed the House, some conservative lawmakers like Sen. Cindy O’Laughlin have slowed those measures in the Senate.
“We are not opposed to the goals that the governor wants to achieve,” said O’Laughlin, R-Shelbina. “We believe in those too. But we want to have a solid financial plan that helps us achieve our goals without having to go back to the taxpayer and ask for additional money.”
The Senate did end up altering some rules around lawsuits and curtailing the low-income housing tax credit. And House Speaker Elijah Haahr, R-Springfield, noted that his colleagues passed nearly 70 bills, including several changing the criminal justice system.
But the House threw up a roadblock of sorts to Parson’s bonding plan. House Budget Committee Chairman Cody Smith wants to spend $100 million over several years on bridge repair, an alternative to bonding the Carthage Republican says will save millions in interest payments.
“I’ll say I’m hesitant to go into debt when we can afford to take a pay-as-you-go approach,” said Smith, R-Carthage. “But I’m always willing to talk about ideas that may be a compromise.”
It’s not unusual for big gubernatorial initiatives to be unfinished by this point of the legislative session. And veteran legislative observers, like Lt. Gov. Mike Kehoe, aren’t surprised some of his GOP colleagues are questioning parts of Parson’s agenda. He’s hopeful that differing sides will compromise.
“Bold decisions and bold actions are never easy in the building,” said Kehoe, who served as a senator for nearly eight years. “The easy things to rename the state tree or frog or street or something seem to get done pretty easily, and that’s understandable. But the founding fathers wanted it pretty tough to make major changes.”
Abortion legislation looms large
One bill that did make it through the Missouri House was O’Fallon Rep. Nick Schroer’s legislation substantially curtailing abortion in the state. Among other things, it would ban abortion if a heartbeat or brain activity is detected around eight weeks of a pregnancy. And if Roe v. Wade is overturned, it would ban most abortion except for medical emergencies.
Both Parson and Republican lawmakers see the bill as the culmination to decades of anti-abortion-rights advocacy. It comes about as lawmakers around the country are trying to see if President Donald Trump’s judicial appointments will uphold abortion restrictions.
“In Missouri, we believe that birth is not where life starts. That God is the author of life,” said state Rep. Mary Elizabeth Coleman, R-Arnold. “And that life starts at conception. And that every life is worthy of protection.”
It’s an almost certainty that Democrats like Sen. Brian Williams, D-University City, will stage an all-out filibuster to prevent Schroer’s bill from making it to Parson’s desk.
“Just being someone who comes from a family of women, I understand how important it is to not only advocate for women’s rights — but also just the right to choose,” Williams said. “And that’s something that I committed to as a candidate and now as a state senator. I’ll stand and fight as long as we have to ensure Missourians’ right to choose is protected.”
During a press conference on Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Caleb Rowden indicated he’s willing to devote a substantial amount of time to debating the issue.
“I think the not-so-subtle lurching to the left by the Democratic Party on this issue is one that I think puts them out of step with a vast majority of America — and certainly a majority of Missourians,” Rowden said. “And so, we’re going to spend a substantive amount of time on it. And I hope it’s a good debate. I hope it’s a civil debate. Obviously, abortion is a debate that’s highly emotional for both sides. And we understand that.”
Senate Minority Leader Gina Walsh, D-Bellefontaine Neighbors, questioned whether debating Schroer’s bill was a good use of the limited time lawmakers have left.
“I do think that it is not very prudent to spend time on something that’s probably going to end up in court when there’s other things we could be doing to move Missouri forward,” Walsh said.
Checking off agenda items
There’s far more on the legislative horizon than just workforce development, transportation and abortion bills.
Some Republican lawmakers are interested in expanding video lottery terminals and sports betting. Others are optimistic that lawmakers in the Senate will finally agree to pass a prescription-drug-monitoring program aimed at curbing opioid abuse.
Members of both parties want to allow taxpayers to enter payment plans with the Department of Revenue after many Missourians received bills due after changes in federal tax law.
“We must provide Missourians relief from these surprise tax bills that many will find difficulty in paying,” said House Minority Leader Crystal Quade, D-Springfield. “Although we had hoped to have a bill by now, there’s still time to get it to the governor’s desk before the April 15 tax deadline if the majority party chooses to move it.”
Both Republican and Democratic lawmakers are interested in debating proposed constitutional amendments stipulating that only St. Louis and St. Louis County voters could decide on a city-county merger. That’s in response to Better Together’s proposal that could be on the statewide ballot next year.
“We need to pay attention to what’s going on and ensuring that the people of St. Louis City and St. Louis County have their say — and not giving it to someone else or going beyond the realms of what they want or what directly affects them,” said state Rep. LaKeySha Bosley, D-St. Louis.
Lawmakers will return to work on March 25 and continue their legislative pursuits until the middle of May.
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