Winners and losers of Missouri’s 2023 legislative session
After two years of drama and gridlock, the Missouri Senate showed up in January determined to put the conflict between the conservative caucus and GOP leadership in the past.
Submerged but ever-lurking, factionalism finally torpedoed the apparent comity in the session’s final week, and the Senate sank into the depths of filibusters and procedural hijinks.
More than 3,000 non-budget bills were introduced during the 2023 session of the Missouri General Assembly. Only 43 found their way across the finish line.
But while a host of big-ticket policy proposals died in the session’s waning days, lawmakers did manage to sign off on the largest budget in state history, promising historic investments in infrastructure projects, public education and the state’s social safety net.
So who were the big winners and losers of the legislative session?
No one had a bigger impact on the state’s $50.7 billion budget than Sen. Lincoln Hough.
The Republican from Springfield took over as chairman of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee this year. And after the House made massive cuts to the governor’s proposed budget, a bipartisan parade of lawmakers found their way to Hough’s fourth-floor office with hat in hand.
Not only did Hough restore nearly all the money the House removed, he tripled the funding to rebuild Interstate 70. Then for good measure, in one of the rare moments when the conservative caucus wasn’t killing bills in the final week, Hough decided he’d take a turn by upending a virtual schools bill that many saw as a vehicle for more sweeping education measures.
Hough just won re-election to a second term. That means he could be shaping the budget for the next three years — a lifetime in the age of term limits.
With less than a third of legislative seats and no statewide office, Missouri Democrats couldn’t have asked for a better legislative session.
The budget pumped money into a host of programs Democrats championed — expanded pre-kindergarten programs, raises for direct care workers, increases in child care subsidies and more. On the policy side, a years-long effort to expand postpartum Medicaid coverage from 60 days to one year finally came to fruition.
In the Senate, Democrats got to sit back for the third year in a row as Republican infighting killed a host of bills they hated. Changes to the initiative petition process, a corporate tax cut, state control of the St. Louis police department, education bills targeting “critical race theory” and a host of others fizzled out despite being priorities for the GOP supermajority.
‘Gray market’ slot machines
As video lottery machines proliferated in convenience stores, truck stops and other locations across the state, the companies that owned them made high-profile enemies.
The Missouri Gaming Commission deemed the machines gambling devices, which are prohibited outside of licensed casinos. The state highway patrol considers them illegal. And in the Missouri Senate, the president pro tem and appropriations chair —Dave Schatz and Dan Hegeman — vowed to legislate them out of the state.
But term limits drove Schatz and Hegeman out of office last year, and debate this year over these slot-machine-like games was focused on how to establish regulations instead of whether they should be allowed at all.
That debate once again became latched to the push to legalize sports wagering, dooming both proposals and leaving the status quo in place. Sen. Caleb Rowden, the current president pro tem of the chamber, said as the session ended that a host of priority bills met their demise because a small group of legislators “want slot machines in gas stations.”
With few local prosecutors willing to bring illegal gambling charges, and the attorney general’s office recusing itself from litigation filed by a gray-market gaming company, the question of the machine’s legality seems unlikely to resolve any time soon.
Highway contractors were already in line for years of work under the limited plan for I-70 proposed by Gov. Mike Parson but the $2.8 billion for widening the highway statewide, plus a study in preparation for doing the same on Interstate 44, promise decades of work.
There’s also money for building construction projects that include a $26 million state warehouse in Jefferson City, a $43 million veterinary hospital at the University of Missouri and a $300 million psychiatric hospital in Kansas City.
Sometimes the best bet is to fly under the radar.
Republican ire this year was focused like a laser on St. Louis. Efforts to return to state control of the city’s police and allow the governor to appoint a special prosecutor to step in for the city circuit attorney continued to pick up steam as the session wore on.
The only thing that stopped the bills was Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner’s decision to resign.
Meanwhile, fresh off a Chiefs Super Bowl victory, Kansas City saw $50 million added to the budget for improvements at Arrowhead Stadium in advance of the 2026 FIFA World Cup. There was also $300 million appropriated to replace an aging psychiatric hospital in the city.
When the push to usurp local control of the St. Louis police was set aside, it cleared the path for legislation containing Blair’s Law — a longtime priority of Kansas City lawmakers that bans celebratory gunfire and is named after a local girl who was killed by a stray bullet in 2011.
No issue garnered more legislative attention this year than the push to limit access to puberty blockers, hormone therapy or gender-affirming surgeries for transgender minors.
Multiple marathon committee hearings, along with impassioned — and at times ugly — debate in both the House and Senate ended with legislation making its way to the governor’s desk. Lawmakers also mandated student athletes compete as their sex assigned at birth.
As debate raged, Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey launched an investigation into clinics that provide gender-affirming care and pushed for an emergency regulation that would block access to care for children and adults.
While most didn’t pass, Missouri led the nation in the number of anti-LGBTQ bills introduced this year, causing advocates to label 2023 “the most dangerous legislative session in recent history.”
Democrats are already sounding the alarm for next year, with Senate Minority Leader John Rizzo of Independence proclaiming on the session’s final day: “When you throw red meat to rabid people, they don’t stop being hungry.”
Republican efforts to enact changes to the judicial system have historically run into a wall of Democratic opposition. But with GOP supermajorities, those Democrats rarely held off legislation for long.
But this year, when a bill seeking to modify the statute of limitations came up for debate in the Senate, a handful of Republicans joined the opposition.
Trial attorneys have had GOP legislative allies in the past. But in recent years, they’ve begun supporting more Republicans, especially those aligned with the conservative caucus, who have found common ground defending the 7th amendment of the U.S. Constitution protecting the right to trial by jury.
“Some people say we’re for trial attorneys,” Sen. Mike Moon, R-Ash Grove, said during Senate debate earlier this year. “No, we’re for people. They should have a chance for redress.”
For the third year in a row, lawmakers rejected the Department of Transportation’s request to implement a market-based pay system to stem turnover. A decision in a court case filed by the Highways and Transportation Commission asserting it has authority to implement raises even without legislative approval has been pending since February 2022.
While the court mulls the question, lawmakers pushed for a constitutional amendment stripping the Highways and Transportation Commission of its long-standing control of the multibillion-dollar state road fund. The effort faltered, but if the court sides with MoDOT it could give the proposed amendment renewed momentum.
‘School choice’ advocates
Last year saw lawmakers create a scholarship program for private schools and a funding increase for charter schools.
Most anticipated supporters would build on those wins this year, and those expectations grew after the school testing data showed Missouri students doing worse across the board from pre-pandemic scores.
But even a modest open enrollment bill barely squeaked out of the House before stalling in the Senate. And a bill seeking to fix the state’s virtual school law ran into a buzzsaw of opposition.
Proponents aren’t going anywhere, are well funded and are eyeing 2024 legislative elections. But 2023 proved resistance hasn’t softened, and any changes to the state education system faces an uphill fight.
The Independent’s Rudi Keller contributed to this story.
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