Missouri Senate dysfunction leads to gridlock on final day of 2023 legislative session

Sen. Cindy O'Laughlin, R-Shelbina, motions to appoint Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, president pro tem, January 4, 2023. Annelise Hanshaw/Missouri Independent

Senate Majority Leader Cindy O’Laughlin, R-Shelbina, makes a motion during Senate debate on Jan. 4, 2023 | Annelise Hanshaw/Missouri Independent

The Missouri Senate held itself together longer than most had expected. 

But on Friday, hours before the constitutionally mandated adjournment, it went off the rails. 

Sen. Bill Eigel, a Weldon Spring Republican running for governor next year, attempted a procedural move to force a vote on personal property tax cut legislation. 

Instead, the chamber voted to go to a bill that would legalize sports wagering. 

Losing in his bid to force the chamber to take up his bill, Eigel restarted a filibuster he kicked off Thursday night. 

“Here on the final day,” he said, “members of this chamber are refusing to make good on the promises that we were going to put Missourians first.”

Senate Majority Leader Cindy O’Laughlin, R-Shelbina, was having none of it. She said Eigel’s “political theater” has nothing to do with tax policy, but rather his hopes to be governor. 

“What happens is, people bring legislation to the floor that they cannot get passed, and then in retaliation for that, they hang up the business of the Senate for hour after hour after hour after hour,” she said, adding: “We’re not all running for governor. So we are trying to do things in an orderly fashion and we cannot continue to have this chaos.”

It was a moment most had been expecting to happen all session.

The Senate had largely avoided the intraparty warfare that locked it in gridlock the last two years, forcing it to adjourn a day early last year for the first time since a fixed calendar date for adjournment was set. 

Despite a handful of flare ups through the session, the chamber seemed to chug along. 

That changed Monday, when Sen. Mike Moon, R-Ash Grove, blocked all action in the Senate in retribution for the chamber approving a postpartum Medicaid bill days earlier while he was absent dealing with a family illness. 

The next two days brought more gridlock, culminating Thursday night when Eigel began a filibuster to protest his personal property tax bill being held up until the Senate approved a different bill  to legalize sports wagering. 

Friday morning, hours before adjournment, a procedural fight broke out as Eigel tried to force a vote on his bill and failing that, picked up a biography of former President Ronald Reagan and threatened to read aloud from it until 6 p.m. adjournment.

“In spite of our efforts to use the tools of diplomacy for the vast majority of this session, we have been denied that,” he said. “That we will choose a different route.”

O’Laughlin jumped to her feet to push back on Eigel’s contention that the GOP majority isn’t interested in cutting taxes. 

“We’re all senators and we’re all trying to represent the people from our neighborhoods,” she said. “And we need cooperation from everyone to get that done. And we’ve had a very difficult time because of a very small group of people led by the senator from (St. Charles County).”

She then moved that the Senate adjourn until 3 p.m. 

The chamber returned only to run into more drama, with Moon attempting to amend the Senate journal to make a statement about the failure of legislation barring foreign ownership of Missouri farmland. 

Sen. Travis Fitzwater, R-Holts Summit, excoriated Moon for his end-of-session obstruction.

“You haven’t done the work to be effective here,” he said. 

Shortly before 6 p.m. the Senate finally limped across the finish line and adjourned for the year. 

What fell short?

  Members of the Missouri House throw paper into the air to celebrate the end of the 2023 legislative session on Friday (Annelise Hanshaw/Missouri Independent).

Over the last 30 years, only the COVID-shortened 2020 legislative session saw lawmakers adjourn with fewer bills heading to the governor’s desk. 

Last year, when the Senate adjourned a day early, lawmakers passed 44 non-budget, policy bills. This year they only managed 43. 

Among the highest profile casualties of the legislative adjournment was a bill seeking to make it harder to amend the state constitution through the initiative petition process. 

It was a major GOP priority, and months of work had whittled the proposal from requiring more signatures and a two-thirds majority for passage to no changes in signature requirements and a 57% majority. 

The House passed the compromise plan on Tuesday but it never came up for a vote in the Senate.

The proposal was seen as a preliminary strike by Republicans hoping to head off an initiative petition that could appear on the 2024 ballot reversing Missouri’s abortion ban by enshrining reproductive rights in the constitution

“If the Senate fails to take action on (initiative petition) reform, the Senate should be held accountable for allowing abortion to return to Missouri,” said House Speaker Dean Plocher, R-Des Peres.

House Minority Leader Crystal Quade, D-Springfield, thanked Plocher for saying “the quiet part out loud.”

The session began with Plocher calling for a big corporate tax cut and Eigel seeking to cut personal property taxes.

Both failed. 

The House incorporated Plocher’s business tax cut into several bills that also cut income taxes, but the Senate never debated them. And Eigel’s proposal became intertwined with the push to legalize sports wagering, dooming both ideas. 

The death of the sports gambling bill marks the fifth year since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a federal law banning sports wagering outside of Nevada that Missouri lawmakers failed to act. 

The major impediment to the bill, once again, was the opposition from companies that profit from video lottery games in bars and truck stops, who insisted any bill legalizing sports wagering also legalize these slot-machine-like machines. 

Senate President Pro Tem Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, placed the blame for the dysfunction that upended the session in its final days on proponents of video lottery games, saying major GOP priorities died because “a small group of people want slot machines in gas stations.”

Sen. Denny Hoskins, R-Warrensburg, has led the push to include video lottery machines in sports betting legislation. Rowden said Hoskins has been unable to find the votes to support his position and still kills sports wagering.

“He is solely responsible for why we don’t have sports betting in Missouri,” Rowden said. “So either he finds more friends or he needs to get out of the way.”

Embattled St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner’s decision to resign effective June 1 killed all momentum for a pair of proposals targeting local control in the city. 

One would have reinstated state control of the St. Louis police. The other would have allowed the governor to appoint a special prosecutor to handle certain violent offenses. Neither proposal won support in the Senate. 

One of Parson’s top priorities this year, tax credits designed to improve affordability and access to child care, also failed despite bipartisan support. Conservative senators staunchly opposed the credits as inefficient. 

Lawmakers also failed to pass sales tax exemptions for feminine hygiene products and diapers, as well as eliminate the sales tax on grocery food.

One issue that garnered bipartisan support that failed to cross the finish line would have halted purchases of Missouri farmland by foreign would-be owners. 

Proponents cited concerns about environmental harm, food security and the fate of family farmers in their push to unwind Missouri’s decision to allow foreign ownership of farmland. But in the end, differences between the two legislative chambers couldn’t be worked out. 

In one last bit of Senate drama, Moon attempted to amend the Senate journal in the waning hours of session to proclaim that the legislature failed to protect Missouri farmland from “foreign adversaries.” 

Legislation aimed at expanding state funding for educational options ran out of steam in the gridlocked Senate. 

In the middle of the session, Sen. Andrew Koenig, a Manchester Republican and chair of the Senate’s education committee, told The Independent bills expanding the state’s K-12 tax credit program or “open enrollment” legislation were the most likely to pass.

In the end, a bill sponsored by Rep. Brad Pollitt, R-Sedalia, that would allow school districts to open their enrollment boundaries to students living in other districts narrowly passed the House but was never taken up for debate by the Senate. 

Pollitt told The Independent that education bills were scheduled to be debated in the Senate last week but were delayed during Senate dysfunction.

Koenig’s “Parents Bill of Rights” legislation contained provisions from multiple bills that came through his committee, including a ban on K-12 schools discussing ideologies that some compared to critical race theory.

It also died upon adjournment, passing the Senate but never coming up for debate in the House. 

Despite receiving a unanimous vote in the House in April, legislation offered by Rep. Tricia Byrnes, R-Weldon Spring, to urge a state investigation into potential compensation for St. Louis-area residents sickened by radioactive waste never came up for a vote in the Senate.

What passed? 

  Missouri House Speaker Dean Plocher, R-Des Peres (Tim Bommel/Missouri House Communications).

Among the biggest legislative wins for Senate Republicans this year were a pair of bills pertaining to transgender minors. 

Lawmakers approved a bill on Wednesday barring minors from puberty blockers, hormone therapy or gender-affirming surgeries

The legislation originated in the Senate, picking up compromise language after a Democratic filibuster. Children who have already begun gender-affirming treatment may continue their regimen, under the compromise, and the ban on puberty blockers and cross-sex hormones expires after four years.

Senate Minority Leader John Rizzo, D-Independence, said he worries that this year’s focus on transgender minors will only mean Republicans will eventually go after adults in order to further to satisfy their political base.

“When you throw red meat to rabid people,” he said, “they don’t stop being hungry.”

Often considered alongside the gender-affirming-care ban, legislation restricting athletes to competing as their sex assigned at birth also passed Wednesday.

Rep. Peter Merideth, D-St. Louis, called the bill “the epitome of bullying,” though Plocher praised it as a way to “protect women’s sports.”

“We don’t have to worry about the sports issue with boys playing women’s sports,” he said. 

Lawmakers also completed work on legislation extending postpartum Medicaid coverage from 60 days to one year. 

Last year, the bill came close to winning legislative support but conservative senators blocked it in the waning days of the session. Earlier this year, conservative senators added anti-abortion language to the bill that many worried would threaten federal approval.

That language was stripped out in the House and did not appear in the final bill sent to the governor. 

Legislation to create a “transitional” benefits program for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families also found its way to the governor’s desk. 

Sponsored by Sen. Mary Elizabeth Coleman and Rep. Alex Riley, both Republicans, the program would allow a “step-down” of those benefits until the participant reaches 200% of the federal poverty line.

Lawmakers passed two key provisions impacting the marijuana industry this year. 

One requires fingerprint background checks for all cannabis employees, while the other allows state agencies to share information with banks in order to help the financial institutions stay in federal compliance while serving cannabis businesses.

While the push to cut the income and corporate taxes fizzled, lawmakers did send a tax cut for senior citizens to the governor that will exempt all income from Social Security from taxes. The bill is expected to reduce revenues by $318 million annually.

A bill sponsored by Rep. Hannah Kelly, R-Mountain View, to expand the adoption tax credit also won legislative approval. It would remove the $6 million per year cap on the adoption tax credit, which provides up to $10,000 per adopted child to assist with one-time adoption-related expenses. 

The bill also makes the tax credit refundable and the limit adjusted with inflation.

“I think if you’re gonna stand on pro-life,” Plocher said, “you need to help people get some adoptions done.”

Lawmakers also signed off on legislation banning texting while driving, easing patient access to physical therapy and prohibiting pelvic, prostate or anal exams on unconscious patients without consent.

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