JEFFERSON CITY — A pile of unfinished business awaits state lawmakers as they begin their two-week race to complete work ahead of the Missouri Legislature’s May 12 deadline.
As of Monday, a host of hot-button issues remained unresolved, including:
• Restricting transgender medical care and participation in sports.
• Making it more difficult to amend the state constitution.
• Legalizing sports betting.
• Naming a special prosecutor for St. Louis and initiating a state takeover of the St. Louis Police Department.
• Putting the final touches on the state’s nearly $50 billion budget.
With Republicans in complete control in both the chambers as well as all statewide offices, the annual session has become a test of wills among the GOP leaders.
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Senate Majority Leader Cindy O’Laughlin, R-Shelbina, has tested a new approach in the upper chamber this year, mostly shying away from all-night sessions meant to tire out lawmakers via the debate and filibuster process in order to forge and force agreement on controversial issues.
House Speaker Dean Plocher, R-Des Peres, has expressed disappointment with the Senate’s slow pace.
“They seem to find drama in everything,” Plocher said. “The Senate is sitting on good items.”
The House this year quickly approved the state takeover of city police and a measure to partially circumvent Circuit Attorney Kimberly M. Gardner through the appointment of a special prosecutor.
But the effort has been stalled in the Senate, where it is possible that the upper chamber could move forward with the special prosecutor proposal in lieu of pursuing the state takeover.
Senate President Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, has indicated the special prosecutor bill has more support.
Another priority for Republicans is a measure that would ask voters to increase the bar to pass constitutional amendments from a simple majority statewide to 57% or, as an alternative, to a simple majority statewide and a majority in five of the state’s eight congressional districts.
That plan cleared the Senate after Democrats successfully blocked a vote on a plan that would’ve required a 60% majority for passage. It now awaits House action.
The Senate, following days of grueling debate, was the first to approve legislation restricting transgender athletes and medical care for transgender youths.
But the House panned the Senate measure, which was a compromise with Democrats that included a four-year expiration date on hormone therapy and puberty blocker restrictions and allowed minors currently being treated to continue.
The House responded by approving its own more-restrictive plan that doesn’t include an expiration or grandfather clause.
Legislators will also need to come to agreement on the state’s $50 billion budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
Both the House and Senate have approved their own budgets, so the two chambers will meet this week to work out differences.
The Legislature’s only constitutional obligation is to approve a budget by May 5.
If placed on the ballot, voters who only read portions of legislators’ ballot summary may miss the proposed higher bar for constitutional amendments.
The ballot summary would first ask voters whether only U.S. citizens should participate in the initiative process, then goes on to ask if voters should restrict lawmakers’ ability to repeal statutory changes by voters.
(Lawmakers can currently repeal voter-approved statutory changes, but can’t touch constitutional amendments.)
Critics have said a citizenship question amounts to “ballot candy” meant to trick voters into handcuffing themselves in the future.
The 57% threshold is less severe than a two-thirds majority that others have proposed, but if it had been effect in previous elections, efforts to expand Medicaid and legalize recreational marijuana would’ve failed, even though clear majorities supported both.
The legislation says a referendum on the question will be held either in the 2024 general election, or in a special election called by the governor.
Passage of the higher threshold could complicate efforts by abortion rights supporters to enshrine reproductive rights in the state constitution.
With two weeks remaining, and a list of other controversial issues to tackle, the Senate is unlikely to take up and approve the House proposal to restrict medical care for transgender minors.
Parson said Thursday he will call a special session if a bill isn’t sent to his desk before the session ends.
The Senate was only able to approve its watered-down restrictions after Democrats blocked a vote on the proposal for days while negotiations took place.
Senate Democrats would almost certainly launch into a sustained filibuster if the issue was brought up again, jeopardizing other bills.
Conversely, the Senate’s athletics restrictions go further than the House limits. Both bills would require transgender athletes to compete on teams aligning with their sex assigned at birth.
But the Senate bill would apply to students in all grades, while the House bill would only apply to students in sixth grade and above.
Special prosecutor, state takeover
With Gardner attracting negative headlines on an almost daily basis for her office’s various failures, it is unclear how far Democrats will go to defend her.
One possible deal could be to approve the special prosecutor plan in lieu of the state takeover of St. Louis police, which Mayor Tishaura O. Jones has vehemently opposed.
Republican megadonor and retired financier Rex Sinquefield has weighed in on the side of keeping the police in local hands: a platoon of his lobbyists is fighting to kill the state takeover bill.
Plocher said the House will continue to press for passage of the two measures as a way to tamp down crime in the state’s most populous region.
“Citizens deserve more,” Plocher said.
Facing a Friday deadline to complete the budget, negotiators in the House and Senate are set to spend much of the week hammering out differences in the two spending plans approved in each chamber.
The Senate proposal, which nearly tops the $50 billion mark, contains $3 billion more spending than the House version, much of which is taken up by a $2.8 billion plan to widen Interstate 70 to three lanes in both directions from Wentzville to Blue Springs.
Gov. Mike Parson had sought $859 million to widen the busy roadway in three sections, but the Senate plan would set aside $1.4 billion this year and then spread the remaining cost over 15 years.
Parson said he’s perfectly fine with the more expansive project.
“We’re not disappointed whatsoever. We’re glad it’s getting done,” Parson said, who has made infrastructure improvements a major part of his administration. “That’s a big plus for our state.”
The Senate also added a bevy of big ticket items, including a $461 million boost to raise the pay for workers who care for the developmentally disabled. The increase will allow for a minimum wage of $17 per hour.
The two sides also could haggle over money for child care providers and pre-kindergarten programs, both of which were highlighted by Parson as top priorities designed to get more women into the workforce.
The Senate version also restores a $4.6 million House Republican effort to defund the state’s libraries.
A major sticking point could be the Senate’s decision to remove a ban inserted by the House that would forbid the state from offering diversity programs, as well as prohibit the state from doing business with vendors who have diversity programs.
Democrats argued the push was part of a racist campaign effort on the part of GOP lawmakers.
There are items in the blueprint that Democrats support.
Rep. Deb Lavender, D-Manchester, said using the state’s surplus for a major upgrade of I-70 is “brilliant.”
Lawmakers could take one final run at legalizing sports betting in the final week of the session.
Although top legislative leaders have expressed doubt that a deal can be struck, there is pressure on the Senate to act because Missouri is now surrounded by states that allow sports wagering.
The House has approved a sports betting scheme, but talks have bogged down over finding a solution to illegal, unregulated gambling machines that have spread across the state by a politically connected company.
Sen. Denny Hoskins, R-Warrensburg, has said video gambling should be legalized in order to rid the state of the untaxed slot machines and has held up passage of sports betting in hopes of leveraging his issue.
If approved, Missourians could bet on sports on their mobile phones, at casinos and at betting parlors near professional sports venues.
Bets would be taxed at a rate of 15% under the last version debated in the Senate. The plan could generate an estimated $30 million for the state in its first full year of operation. Cities that are home to casinos would receive an estimated $3.2 million.
The measure also sets aside $1 million to combat compulsive gambling.
Editor’s note: The state budget is nearly $50 billion, not million. An earlier version was incorrect.
Missouri’s Legislature reflects the federal structure in many ways. Video by Beth O’Malley
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