In January, House Speaker Todd Richardson (R-Poplar Bluff) predicted — with Republicans in control of the Senate, the House and the governorship — “an incredibly productive legislative session.”
Things didn’t unfold quite as planned.
The Missouri General Assembly passed more than 130 bills each of the past two sessions. This year, they sent 71 to Gov. Eric Greitens’ desk.
During the rocky session, however, Republicans ultimately accomplished some key parts of their conservative agenda.
Owners of Missouri businesses will largely remember this session with fondness, but the conservative lawmakers also failed to restrict abortion, expand gun rights and institute stricter ethics laws governing themselves.
Republican leaders, from the governor to House Speaker Richardson, praised the scope of work accomplished during the session. Richardson pointed to legislation that places limits on lawsuits and that fully funds the K-12 Foundation Formula as important victories.
But Democrats noted that heavy Republican infighting helped slow down progress.
“It’s been difficult to play defense,” said Gail McCann Beatty (D-Kansas City), House Minority Floor Leader. “But the dysfunction of the Republican party this year was a little bit of help.”
From the session’s beginning, Republicans prioritized making Missouri more business-friendly. A large piece of that agenda passed through the legislature quickly.
The session started Jan. 4, and, by Feb. 6, Greitens signed a bill making Missouri the 28th “right-to-work” state. The legislation outlawed mandatory union fees, and lawmakers argued it would produce more jobs.
“Today represents a great day for the people of Missouri and especially families that need jobs,” Greitens said at a signing ceremony.
Other pro-business bills — spurred by the increase of legislators who are small-business owners — took longer to reach Greitens’ desk, or a Taco Bell parking lot.
On April 13, the Senate and House agreed on a bill that allowed ride-sharing services, such as Uber and Lyft, to expand their business beyond St. Louis, Kansas City and Columbia. Greitens ceremoniously signed the bill into law at a Taco Bell while sitting in a car.
The General Assembly also rebuffed St. Louis’ effort to raise its minimum wage to $10 by setting a statewide standard.
On May 4, a circuit court judge allowed the city ordinance — which had been wrapped in court for two years — to take effect, according to The Associated Press. If Greitens signs the legislation into law, workers in St. Louis will have their wages return to the state minimum of $7.70 an hour.
And, for the third time in four sessions, lawmakers introduced legislation that would bind the number of weeks of unemployment benefits Missourians could collect to the state unemployment rate. In the current economy, the number of weeks would drop from 20 to 13. The legislation failed this year.
Republicans also aimed to overhaul the legal system in the state, which outside conservative groups have attacked as a “judicial hellhole,” to make it more advantageous for businesses.
On Monday, the Senate passed a bill that raised the standard of proof needed to prove workplace discrimination. Now, employees need only prove race, gender, age or religious beliefs were a contributing factor in an action taken against them, such as not being promoted. If Greitens signs the bill into law, which is likely, employees would need to prove it was the motivating factor.
The legislation’s detractors said winning a case against a business with that standard was “insurmountable.” Sen. Gary Romine (R-Farmington), the bill’s sponsor, said it would protect businesses from “frivolous lawsuits.”
During a committee hearing for the bill, Nimrod “Rod” Chapel Jr., Missouri NCAAP president, compared the bill to Jim Crow laws. Then, Rep. Bill Lant (R-Pineville) interrupted him and didn’t allow him to testify the allotted five minutes, as everyone else was able to do.
A bill introduced by Sen. Caleb Rowden (R-Columbia) would have allowed hospitals to define what a hospital employee is, as compared to, say, a contractor. That changes who is held liable for any harm that happens under the hospital’s roof.
Currently, a hospital is held liable, but the bill would have placed the liability on the person who committed the harm, if that person is not technically a hospital employee.
A version of this bill that originated in the House will head to the governor’s desk. The new version would still hold hospitals liable if the hospital owns a majority stake in a subsidiary company that employs medical staff. Another passed bill limited how much plaintiffs could be awarded in cases involving damages.
But other high-profile legislation that would have helped businesses stalled.
One bill would have effectively undercut the ability to bring a class-action lawsuit against a company with shady business practices, such as selling defective products.
A Washington, D.C., group filed a complaint with the state, insisting its sponsor, Sen. Ron Richard (R-Joplin), filed the legislation to help a campaign donor, millionaire David Humphreys. Humphreys’ roofing company is facing a class-action lawsuit.
Another series of bills in the House also sought to restrict options for people who wish to file a lawsuit in Missouri courts. Democrats effectively filibustered its passage.
Yet another bill strengthening businesses’ legal rights would have forced at-will employees to settle any disputes with an employer through arbitration, instead of in court.
In a budget bind, Greitens looked to higher education funding to help offset the shortfall. In January, he proposed cutting more than $80 million — more than half of the overall cuts — to the state’s colleges and universities.
Originally, Greitens wanted to cut about $38 million from the UM System and about $20 million from MU. Representatives from colleges around the state argued that would hurt the state’s economy.
In the end, lawmakers took some mercy: House Budget Chair Rep. Scott Fitzpatrick (R-Shell Knob) said any more cuts would be “beyond punitive.” Eventually, about $11 million of that funding was restored to the UM System.
However, MU has already started culling staffers, and there has been talk of layoffs. This week, it was announced MU intends to make across-the-board cuts of 12 percent.
Greitens’ proposal also cut some money from K-12 education, despite his promise that “not a single penny would come out of our K-12 classrooms.”
When he officially released his budget proposal, state funding for K-12 education was down $23 million, but, because the governor’s office predicted more incoming federal funds, the overall budget actually increased $36 million.
In its version of the budget, the House fully funded the formula the government uses to determine how much money school districts receive from the state. Senate leadership opposed that, but Republicans and Democrats in the Senate banded together and approved fully funding the formula.
It added about $45 million to the budget.
Republicans also introduced bills aimed at increasing “school choice” — expanding where charter schools could operate and implementing virtual schools. Even Jeb Bush, who ran for president in 2016, stopped by the Capitol to lobby for the changes.
In a similar vein, one proposal would have allowed students who attend virtual universities to receive state financial assistance.
None of these measures passed.
Medicaid was also a target, as Republicans argued the state spending on it was out of control.
Proposed legislation would have mandated the state to ask the federal government to provide Medicaid funds in one lump sum, instead of paying for each individual person. That would give the state more control over those funds, lawmakers said, but critics contended it would result in less money for Missourians who rely on the program to pay their health care.
One of the Affordable Care Act’s provisions allowed states to expand Medicaid. Missouri and 18 other states refused.
Missouri spent about $9.6 billion on Medicaid in 2015, somewhere in the middle of the pack in terms of state spending, according to the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.
Fitzpatrick, the House budget chairman, has said expanding Medicaid would hurt the state financially.
A tax break for seniors who rent their homes and people with disabilities — called a “circuit-breaker” — also played into lawmakers’ debate over whether to cut funding to Medicaid.
Initially, lawmakers proposed eliminating the tax break — which would have provided about $52 million — to help with some of the cuts to state health care spending. The House version of the budget included its elimination.
The Senate pushed back, finding the money for health care elsewhere. House members initially disagreed with what they called a questionable funding plan, but ultimately signed off. If the Senate plan works, that means about 8,000 seniors at risk of losing their in-home nursing care benefits will keep them.
Also, a bill that creates a preferred drug list for antipsychotic medications for people on Medicaid passed. Studies of other states with similar programs showed people with mental illness sought treatment less often, but Republicans argued they needed to reel in spending on Medicaid.
Legislation aimed to expand gun rights in Missouri all fell short.
If one bill had passed, Missourians with concealed carry permits would have been able to pack in churches, public university campuses and bars.
Republicans argued the presence of guns in these places would make the people in them safer.
“Criminals know where the gun-free zones are,” Rep. Jered Taylor (R-Nixa) said. “They know they’re going to be able to carry out their rampage and likely won’t be stopped until law enforcement arrives.”
Other legislation would have made businesses that post signs prohibiting concealed firearms liable for any injuries or damages sustained by people who would otherwise be carrying.
Also, currently, people with misdemeanor convictions for domestic violence can carry a gun. Legislation would have ended that loophole, but the House version of the bill was withdrawn after the National Rifle Association publicly opposed it. The Senate version died in committee.
In one victory for gun-rights advocates, by reinterpreting an existing law, Greitens allowed visitors with concealed-carry permits to carry guns into the Capitol.
Several bills opposing abortion rights were introduced this session, but none of them went anywhere.
Some of the bills sought to clarify protections for clinics that offer alternatives to abortion, to ensure there would never be a black market for fetal tissue and to prevent women from aborting a fetus based on sex, race or if the baby has Down syndrome. Other legislation would have banned abortions once the fetus felt pain, but lawmakers disagreed on whether that was at 20 or 28 weeks in a pregnancy.
Lawmakers had high hopes for ethics reform at the start of the session. That soon dissipated.
Bills that would have limited gifts from lobbyists to lawmakers, extended the amount of time before lawmakers could become lobbyists and allowed the Missouri Ethics Commission to publish financial interest statements floundered.
The highly touted bill limiting lobbyist gifts passed the House in less than two weeks. Then, it languished in the Senate.
“This should be something that we should champion,” said Rep. Justin Alfermann(R-Hermann), who introduced the legislation. “It’s not hard, yet the Senate seems like they have issues with it. It should not be surprising that those who take the most free stuff want to continue their right to take free stuff. It’s beyond ridiculous.”
Division over ethics also allowed Sen. Rob Schaaf (R-St. Joseph) to hold up his chamber. His bill would have required nonprofits — such as A New Missouri, Inc., which has ties to Greitens — to disclose their donors under certain circumstances.
After the nonprofit published Schaaf’s personal cell number, the senator issued an ultimatum of sorts: The Senate would debate his bill or face filibuster.
“I received hundreds, if not thousands, of phone calls,” Schaaf said. “And when (Greitens) did that, he changed the balance of power. He did something that affects every senator in this chamber.”
Debate over Schaaf’s bill consumed much of the second-to-last week of the session. In the end, the bill went nowhere.
Missouri came one step closer to joining the 43 states that have complied with the federal Real ID Act of 2005, which mandated that states needed to conform their IDs to federal standards for national security reasons.
The state’s deadline to comply is Jan. 22, 2018. If the lawmakers hadn’t acted, Missourians wouldn’t have been able to use their state-issued IDs to enter federal buildings or to board airplanes.
The General Assembly approved legislation that would bring the state into compliance on May 11, the second-to-last day of the session.
Greitens has not said whether he’d sign the bill, but he has said, “It’s very important to me that every person in the state of Missouri has the option of having an ID that will allow them to fly.”
Compliance had stalled because some lawmakers said they saw the law as a breach of residents’ privacy. Unlike how Missouri processes new IDs now, the law required that the state retain source documents, such as copies of birth certificates and Social Security cards.
To address the privacy concerns, the bill implements a system in which Missourians can opt-out of having a federal ID.
Richard, the Senate leader, said in a statement the bill struck a balance between privacy and compliance.
“This measure creates a path forward for Missourians who want to fly using a photo ID while preserving the privacy of citizens who decide to keep using their current driver’s license,” he said.
Missouri is the only state without a prescription drug-monitoring program — intended to curb the state’s opioid epidemic — and it remained that way as the legislative session ended Friday.
For years, Schaaf has stonewalled any legislation that would create one, arguing it violates residents’ privacy.
Rep. Holly Rehder (R-Sikeston) introduced this year’s version of the program, and the House passed it on April 3.
But the Senate’s version, passed April 13 with numerous amendments, proved anathema to lawmakers who represent counties with their own drug-monitoring programs.
The Senate’s version would have limited how long information in the program was stored to 180 days, curtailing its effectiveness. It also would have narrowed what medications were included in the program.
Other notable legislation:
• Missouri’s aging rural roads and bridges actually lost some funding for upkeep.
• A bill to raise the legal age a girl could marry from 15 to 17 years old died in the Senate.
• Missouri’s iteration of the “bathroom bill” — which has been passed and heavily criticized in other states — died after one hearing.
• Tacked onto a bill that adds a penalty to immigrants who are undocumented and then commit a crime in Missouri, legislation that allows the police to warn the public about people who have shot officers and are still at large passed.
Similar to Amber alerts, the system is called “blue alert.”
By Sky Chadde