At the west end of the Missouri Capitol on Wednesday, the state House opened the annual legislative session in the traditional way, with routine business and a quick adjournment.
At the east end, in the state Senate, bitter divisions exposed last year resurfaced, as members of the conservative caucus aired their grievances and Democrats brooded about the deceitful way they feel they were treated by Republican leaders.
“Unfortunately, we have had an erosion of trust here in the Senate,” Sen. Denny Hoskins, R-Warrensburg, said as he held the floor for nearly an hour. “An erosion of trust because of a lack of integrity, honor and honesty.”
Wednesday marked the first day of the 2022 legislative session, with lawmakers gathered in Jefferson City for the better part of the next five months before May 13 adjournment.
And it didn’t take long for the acrimony from 2021 to spill into the new year.
While Hoskins held the Senate floor Wednesday, most Republicans and almost all Democrats were in their offices. Senate Minority Leader John Rizzo, D-Independence, said Democrats are also upset with the GOP leadership.
“Right now, you have to take a number to complain about what happened at the end of the session last year,” Rizzo said. “We can’t even get to the table yet, they have taken the whole day.”
The fact that most Republican senators left the chamber while Hoskins and the conservative caucus were complaining is a clear indication of the prevailing opinion of the chamber’s majority party, said Senate Majority Leader Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia.
“The airing of grievances is something that always brings joy to the world,” Rowden said in an interview after the Senate adjourned. “I will work with anybody who respects the Senate and wants to get stuff done.”
The bitterness grew out of disagreements over a number of issues, ranging from whether the state Medicaid program will cover some contraceptive treatments and the timing of debate over a bill limiting police cooperation with federal agencies on gun law violations.
The fissures grew during a special session called to focus on renewing a Medicaid provider tax, and re-emerged last month when the conservative caucus was excluded from a meeting in Jefferson City of GOP senators.
Passing a bill in the Senate requires 18 votes, and by the end of the 2021 session, the partisan split in the Senate was 17 Republicans generally aligned with the leadership, seven in the conservative caucus and 10 Democrats.
Lawmakers have a big agenda of redistricting the state’s Congressional delegation, funding the Medicaid system after eligibility was expanded to cover working adults and spending billions in federal COVID aid. Almost no attention was paid to those issues in the Senate Wednesday, except to allude to the difficulties facing anyone seeking to put together a majority of 18 Senators.
“Any time we as senators make it about us as individuals, the Senate is gonna lose and in turn the state of Missouri loses,” Rowden said. “Clearly there is a divide there but that doesn’t mean it can’t be repaired and doesn’t mean we can’t pass good stuff.”
While Senators were trading barbs, business proceeded smoothly in the House, which adjourned Wednesday in less than an hour.
The chamber kicked off with a moment of silence for Rep. Tom Hannegan, a St. Charles Republican who died late last year after experiencing a stroke. Hannegan, who was one of only six openly LGBTQ members in the legislature, had championed legislation that aimed to prohibit discrimination and further LGBTQ rights.
Reps. Justin Hill, R-Lake St. Louis, and Aaron Griesheimer, R-Washington, also gave farewell speeches as they leave to take on jobs in the private sector.
With the departure of both Hill and Griesheimer, along with other lawmakers leaving for gubernatorial appointments, the House GOP caucus now has less than the two-thirds majority necessary to pass an emergency clause so new Congressional district maps go into effect before the Aug. 2 primary.
“It’s an issue, but it’s the cards that we have, and we’re gonna work through it,” said House Speaker Rob Vescovo, R-Arnold, during a news conference after the session.
Asked if lawmakers have spoken with Gov. Mike Parson about calling special elections to fill vacancies, Rep. Dan Shaul, R-Imperial and chair of the House Special Committee on Redistricting, said he has not. Lawmakers have previously spoken with the governor about holding special sessions on redistricting — a call Parson has thus far declined to make.
In a Wednesday letter, Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft urged Parson to call elections “without delay” to fill the vacant House seats. If the elections are authorized by Monday, then they could be held during the April 5 municipal elections “with minimal cost to the taxpayer, but substantial benefit to Missourians,” Ashcroft, a Republican, wrote.
Redistricting will be lawmakers top priority in the first weeks of session, and House leaders plan to work Fridays to finish as soon as possible. Filing for offices on the August primary ballot begins Feb. 22.
Vescovo said he doesn’t yet have thoughts on the proposed maps.
“As this building works through the process — just like any other bill — just because it is presented one way doesn’t mean it’s going to finish that way,” Vescovo said.
Democratic members see the lack of a GOP supermajority as an opportunity that will give them leverage to enact their priorities, said House Minority Leader Crystal Quade, D-Springfield.
“So we’re going to be putting together a whole lot of asks, as the time comes where they’re going to need our votes for that emergency clause,” Quade said.
Quade said that potentially includes things unrelated to redistricting, such as ensuring Medicaid expansion is fully funded and furthering access to affordable child care
Democratic members will be proposing a Congressional map of their own, Quade said, and will be filing an array of amendments during the debate.
“In the last election cycle, 40% of congressional votes went to Democrats,” Quade said. “So the reality is, we should have a 5-3 map if we’re going to be truly representative of our state and the way voters vote.”
Quade called conservative senators’ demands for a 7-1 map “ridiculous,” but said there would be room to have conversations on a 6-2 map.
The last time redistricting occurred in 2010, several Democratic House representatives defected from their caucus and joined GOP lawmakers in support of their proposed maps. Quade said Democratic lawmakers always try to vote unanimously, but that ultimately the choice will be theirs.
“I don’t tell my caucus how to vote,” Quade said.
The Senate is not currently planning to work on Fridays, Rowden said.
“I certainly wouldn’t say it is impossible over here because we understand the urgency of redistricting and the supplemental budget,” he said.
Lawmakers also face looming deadlines for the allocation of federal funds, and budget surplus of billions of dollars.
Rep. Cody Smith, a Carthage Republican and the chair of the House Budget Committee, said it’s an unprecedented situation.
“Our challenge is to look for ways to wisely invest that money that would pay dividends for future decades,” Smith said. “And so we need to be thoughtful and careful about how we do it.”
The state has $1.3 billion in federal COVID-19 aid for economic stimulus, more than $2 billion in surplus general revenue that is not committed and almost $1.9 billion of federal aid for public schools.
Vescovo said broadband was among the issues Republican lawmakers would like to see funds devoted to, while Quade said Democrats have identified priorities like expanded daycare options to tackle workforce shortages and investing in IT infrastructure.
Last month, Parson declared raises for state employees to $15 an hour a top priority. There is strong bipartisan support for raises that would help fill hundreds of open jobs in state government.
“Like all of the workforce across all public and private sectors in Missouri, state government is having a hard time keeping employees, especially in pivotal roles,” Smith said. “So we need to be responsive to that, and I think we will be.”
COVID on the rise
With COVID cases at their highest since January of last year and hospitalizations rapidly increasing, the legislature was not spared from the virus’ spread.
The House gaveled in with 13 members absent. Three members of the Senate were absent. The reason for the absences was not stated while lawmakers were in session.
The House absences included two Democratic members who were out sick with COVID-19, Quade said at a news conference.
In the past two years, weeks of the legislative session were lost and work was delayed due to COVID-19 outbreaks among lawmakers and staff. The governor’s 2021 State of the State address was even relocated from the House to the smaller Senate chamber because of a COVID outbreak.
Vescovo said he did not have figures on how many Republican members were out due to COVID-19, and said he wasn’t concerned about the threat outbreaks would pose in the face of a slew of priorities necessary to pass early in the session.
“We all use common sense. If we’re sick, I’m going to ask the members to stay home,” Vescovo said. “They’re all adults, they can police themselves and if they’re sick they’re probably going to stay home.”
Quade, who was flanked by masked lawmakers, said Democratic lawmakers would like to see mitigation measures in place, and noted Democratic members held their caucus meeting both in-person and on Zoom.
“Acting like everything is fine is definitely concerning,” Quade said. “If you think about how much time we had to take off those five weeks when this all first started, the numbers are worse than they were then. So we are concerned.”
‘Super secret special caucus’
When Hoskins finished bringing conservative caucus members to the floor to discuss why they don’t trust the leadership, he asked Rowden about a December meeting that excluded the group.
He wanted to know who initiated the idea – Rowden was vague in his response – and who was invited. To that question, Rowden said 15 to 17 of the Senate’s 24 Republicans.
Rowden admitted that he sent the invitations.
The meeting discussed redistricting, the budget and other issues facing lawmakers, Rowden told Hoskins.
“They wanted to be in a room with people they could trust,” Rowden said.
With trust at a premium in the Senate, Hoskins asked why the meeting was held at all.
“Do you think the way to build trust is to hold super secret special caucus meetings?” Hoskins asked.
The dispute among Republicans could be the genesis of an odd coalition, where Democrats and the conservative caucus work together.
They don’t agree on many issues, Rizzo noted, but he knows that he can rely on the members of the conservative caucus to keep their word.
“The conservative caucus has never lied to me the way that I was lied to at the end of the session last year,” Rizzo said.
The division will certainly enhance the power of Democrats in the upper chamber, Rowden said.
“It is always good for Sen. Rizzo and the minority caucus,” he said, “when the majority caucus is fractured.”
This article by Rudi Keller is published by permission of The Missouri Independent.