JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – Missouri lawmakers must adjourn for the year at 6 p.m. on Friday, leaving just five days to complete work on some of the highest-profile — and controversial — items on the GOP supermajority’s agenda.
And while the last two legislative sessions were defined in their final week by the simmering tension between Republicans in the Senate, this year it will likely be clashes between the two legislative chambers that decides the fate of a laundry list of proposals.
For weeks, House Speaker Dean Plocher, R-Des Peres, has lamented the slow pace of the Senate, complaining that top GOP priorities approved by the House languished across the Capitol rotunda in the Senate.
“We continue to look for action out of the Senate,” Plocher told reporters late last month. “The House has lived up to the expectations of the conservative voters of this state… we’re just waiting for the Senate.”
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Meanwhile, Sen. Bill Eigel, a Weldon Spring Republican and likely candidate for governor, says it is Plocher who decided to slow down progress on Senate bills as a negotiating tactic, putting their chances at risk as time winds down before adjournment.
“We had months to send to the governor’s desk bills that matched the priorities of the people of this state,” Eigel said. “Remember, it was the speaker of the House who said he was going to slow down all Senate bills until he got exactly what he wanted on a particular priority. He slowed down Senate bills for weeks to leverage this chamber.”
Hanging in the balance are bills that have been among the most hotly debated of the year, ranging from the initiative petition process to public education to LGBTQ rights.
Other priorities — legalized sports betting, corporate tax cuts, a state takeover of the St. Louis police — face incredibly long odds as time ticks down toward 6 p.m. Friday.
But after two years of watching as the Senate collapsed in the session’s final days in a cloud of GOP infighting, Senate President Pro Tem Caleb Rowden struck an optimistic tone for this year’s homestretch.
“There’s no reason to believe.. that we won’t have, you know, a relatively normal last week,” said Rowden, R-Columbia.
Senate Minority Leader John Rizzo, D-Independence, said his colleagues have worked hard to stop legislation they believe will hurt the state while keeping the chamber functioning.
But Rizzo isn’t sure how much longer the 10 Democrats in the 34-member Senate can hold the line.
“Democrats are here to be the adults in the room,” he said to reporters on Friday. “Sometimes that means pulling us back from the brink. But it’s only a matter of time before we won’t be able to stop it. Let’s hope that that time is not next week.”
Rowden said he expects the Senate to debate as early as Tuesday a bill that would allow public school students to transfer from their home district to any other school district that has opted into the program.
The open enrollment legislation barely squeaked out of the House in March with just three votes to spare. And so far the Senate hasn’t made any changes to the bill, meaning it is one vote away from heading to the governor.
But Sen. Andrew Koenig, a Manchester Republican who chairs the Senate education committee, recently told the Columbia Missourian he doesn’t believe the bill has enough support to pass unless it is expanded to include “pieces that might be unrelated to open enrollment.”
The bill was originally supposed to be debated last week, but a dust up over a Kansas City landfill led to a day-long filibuster and the education debate to be delayed.
Rizzo said passing an open enrollment bill will be tough.
“I will tell you,” he said, “it’s an uphill battle.”
Initiative petition changes
Both the House and Senate have approved bills that would ask voters to make it harder to amend the constitution through the initiative petition process.
But differences between the two chambers will need to be ironed out before the proposal heads to the ballot.
The House version would raise the threshold for voters to amend the constitution from a simple majority to 60%. The Senate version would require 57% of the vote or a simple majority statewide and in five of eight congressional districts.
“If we got a version back from the conference committee that just changes the number,” Eigel said, “and takes out those concurrent majority provisions, that would probably run into a lot of trouble in this chamber, especially in the last week.”
But House leadership has expressed reservations about the Senate’s changes, worrying they will draw well-financed opposition that could doom its chances on the 2024 ballot.
There was also a provision added in the Senate that says that if any portion of a constitutional initiative petition was ever tossed out by a court, the entire amendment would be void.
“To a non-attorney, and I am a non-attorney, this proposal doesn’t sound constitutional to me,” said Rep. Joe Adams, D-University City, said to the bill’s sponsor, GOP Rep. Mike Henderson of Bonne Terre.
“We are trying to sort that out,” Henderson replied, “and that’s why we are going to conference.”
Transgender health care
One of the bills the House is expected to take up this week would limit access to certain medical treatments for transgender minors.
The House passed a version of the bill last month that would establish a total ban on puberty blockers, hormone therapy and surgeries for transgender Missourians younger than 18.
The Senate version was the result of a compromise with Democrats. It includes an expiration date for the bans on puberty blockers and hormone therapy, and allows those already taking puberty blockers or hormone therapy to continue.
Rowden has said repeatedly that the Senate cannot approve anything that is more restrictive than the bill it has already passed. If the House won’t sign off on the Senate version as is, he said, then the bill is dead.
If lawmakers do fail to approve the bill, Gov. Mike Parson has threatened to call them back into special session to continue the effort.
When St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner announced last week she would resign effective June 1, part of the deal was that the Senate would stop its push to pass a bill targeting her office.
The bill would give the governor the ability to strip the authority of any elected prosecutor to handle violent crime cases and appoint a special prosecutor — or the attorney general — to take over those cases for five years.
While that particular proposal is dead, Rowden said other provisions of the bill have bipartisan support.
“I still think we’ll have a conversation about public safety,” he said.
Plocher told reporters that the House would push for the public safety bill as “hard as ever.
“We are going to have to continue to show support for the police, for the communities, and to continue to prosecute and hold people accountable,” he said.
Gardner was facing a legal challenge from Attorney General Andrew Bailey seeking to remove her from office. Bailey told the Post-Dispatch he has no intention of dropping his lawsuit and believes the legislature should pass a bill that would prevent people like Gardner from running for the office again.
Rowden demurred when asked about the attorney general’s comments.
“I think it’s time for everybody to move on,” Rowden said, “including the attorney general.”