A flurry of activity in the Missouri House on Friday kept 2022 from earning the ignominious distinction of least productive legislative session in modern history.
With GOP infighting in the Senate forcing it to adjourn a day early after a session that’s seen it mired in gridlock, the House returned Friday morning to pass 20 bills over the course of almost six hours.
When the final gavel fell about 4 p.m. and the session officially ended, 43 non-budget bills had found their way to the governor’s desk. Since 1981, the fewest number of bills to clear the General Assembly was 31 during the pandemic-shortened session of 2020.
The average number of bills passed each year over that time is 155.
Yet while the list of achievements may be short, it still includes major pieces of legislation — including some that have been a GOP priority for years.
If signed by Gov. Mike Parson:
- Millions in new funding would be directed to charter schools in St. Louis and Kansas City.
- New protections would be created for property owners hoping to fend off use of eminent domain by private companies.
- Voters will be required to show a photo ID in order to cast a ballot.
- Hospitals and nursing homes would be limited in implementing the type of visitor restrictions imposed during the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Schools will be required to test and filter drinking water to prevent lead poisoning.
Lawmakers also approved the largest budget in the state’s history — fattened up with billions of federal COVID relief funding — that included big increases for public schools and universities, nearly $1 billion to increase payments to medical and personal care providers and a $500 million plan for tax rebates.
The budget also included language seeking to bar taxpayer funds from going to Planned Parenthood, a long-time goal of the anti-abortion movement.
Despite months of stalled attempts to redraw the state’s congressional maps — with the Senate’s conservative caucus and GOP leadership often in active war with each other — the Senate finally managed to finish its work on redistricting.
“I’m proud of my colleagues for achieving many accomplishments this year, in spite of the amount of attempted obstruction,” said Senate President Pro Tem Dave Schatz, R-Sullivan.
Senate Minority Leader John Rizzo, D-Independence, pointed to the budget as the session’s major accomplishment, specifically noting money to raise teacher pay.
“It was a good year for Democrats,” Rizzo said. “It was a good year for the people of the state of Missouri.”
Gridlock in the Senate gummed up the works and created a legislative bottleneck in the upper chamber that doomed a litany of bills.
Among the highest-profile casualties include efforts to block transgender students from participating on sports teams that match their gender identity, legislation that would have legalized sports wagering and changes to make it harder to amend the state constitution through the initiative petition process.
Republicans also fell short in efforts to ban vaccine mandates by private businesses as well as prohibit mask requirements in schools.
“We could have done a lot better,” said Sen. Bob Onder, R-Lake St. Louis, whose fellow members of the Senate conservative caucus regularly derailed the chamber this year with filibusters and procedural maneuvers.
With the House working to get bills across the finish line Friday, the Senate’s early adjournment rubbed some the wrong way.
“I was disappointed that they adjourned, and I think all of my colleagues are disappointed that they adjourned,” said House Speaker Rob Vescovo, R-Arnold. “But let’s be frank with each other. They haven’t been working in cohesion with each other all session. So who would have said they would have accomplished anything in the last 24 hours anyway, with all the fighting amongst each other.”
House Minority Leader Crystal Quade, D-Springfield, said her party had lots of success stopping what it considers bad bills. But that’s not what she hopes voters take away from the last five months of legislative work.
“The inescapable message of the 2022 legislative session is this,” Quade said. “The guys running this place have no idea how to govern.”
Some of the highest profile legislative wins were focused on education.
A years-long effort by charter school proponents to obtain more funds for their students finally paid off this year. Lawmakers agreed to a compromise bill that could pump millions into charter schools through a change in the foundation formula, the basic state aid program for school districts.
The change is estimated to cost between $62 million and $74 million in fiscal year 2023, according to a fiscal analysis of the bill.
Another bill could drastically cut down on the amount of lead in school drinking water.
The state currently doesn’t require schools to test their water, and only a few have taken advantage of grants to do so voluntarily. But this week, legislation that would require school administrators to test drinking water for lead and take action under standards more protective than federal regulations was passed and sent to the governor.
A push for statewide open enrollment legislation fizzled, but lawmakers did pass a much more narrowly-tailored version focused exclusively on people who own multiple properties in different school districts.
Another bill on the governor’s desk seeks to improve childhood literacy by requiring schools to start assessing students on their reading levels in kindergarten and ensure students who are behind receive additional support.
Long-term GOP goals
Republicans overcame fierce Democratic opposition in order to once again pass a photo ID requirement to vote.
The idea has been a priority of the GOP in Missouri for more than a decade, but each time they successfully approved voter ID legislation it was thrown out by the courts.
This year, Senate Democrats agreed to end a filibuster and allow the bill to come up for a vote after Republicans agreed to include an amendment creating a two-week window for no-excuse absentee voting.
The GOP and farm groups celebrated passage of eminent domain legislation that they framed as protections for private property rights.
Inspired by a 4,000 megawatt transmission line expected to run clean energy across Missouri, the bill adds more protections for Missourians when companies condemn land to build transmission lines.
Lawmakers also passed a “Sexual Assault Survivors Bill of Rights,” laying out protections for survivors such as making it inadmissible for a victim’s previous sexual history to be used during a trial and establishing procedures for medical care.
COVID, prison nurseries, hazardous waste
On Friday, the Missouri House unanimously approved legislation requiring health care facilities to permit at least two visitors to be able to see a patient in-person during visiting hours.
The change was inspired by visitor restrictions enacted during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic by hospitals and nursing homes. Under the legislation, facilities would still be permitted to impose certain restrictions, like if a visitor is showing symptoms of an infection or while emergency care is being administered.
Another bill that found its way to the governor’s desk Friday would permit the Missouri Department of Corrections to establish a nursery within a women’s correctional facility, allowing children born to incarcerated women to stay with their mothers behind bars for up to 18 months.
Supporters of the proposal have pointed to the impact of similar programs in other states on reducing recidivism rates.
Lawmakers also passed a bill weakening Missouri’s hazardous waste regulations.
The legislation approved Friday would bar Missouri from enacting hazardous waste rules that are any stricter than federal regulation. It would also allow advanced — or chemical — recycling facilities to operate without a solid waste permit.
Critics argue the two policies will leave Missourians more vulnerable to being exposed to dangerous chemicals.
This article by Jason Hancock is published by permission of The Missouri Independent.