The 2022 legislative session ended last week the same way it began back in January: With the Missouri Senate bogged down and barely able to function thanks to bitter divisions within the Republican majority.
Over the course of five months, there were filibusters, procedural hijinks and ugly back-and-forths between members of the Senate’s conservative caucus and those aligned GOP leadership.
While not nearly as productive as typical sessions, lawmakers still managed to navigate the drama to approve the largest budget in state history and some long-sought legislative priorities.
So who were the big winners and losers from one of the more dysfunctional legislative sessions in living memory?
“The Eleven,” as they took to calling themselves, first flexed their collective muscle last summer by helping forge a path forward for the renewal of an essential tax on hospitals, nursing homes and pharmacies.
Throughout the session, their pleas for bipartisan cooperation often served as a counterbalance to vitriol that dominated Senate debate. And in the final days before adjournment, it was the Republican women who stood and decried the melodrama most effectively.
As one lobbyist put it, the women in the Senate were a “frequent remedy to the big feelings of many Senate men.”
Lawmakers spent the summer and fall holding hearings on critical race theory. School choice advocates were determined to pass legislation transferring money from school districts to their charter counterparts. And lingering frustration from pandemic-related school closures and mask mandates were especially potent among Republicans in the supermajority.
But when the session adjourned for the year, bills targeting school curriculum languished and the extra cost for charter school funding shifted onto the state treasury rather than school districts. To top it all off, the budget includes money to boost starting teacher pay to $38,000 and an extra $214 million for public school transportation, enough to fully fund the state’s obligation to local districts for the first time since 1991.
Medical marijuana industry
Over the course of the final few weeks of the session, the medical marijuana industry repeatedly beat back bipartisan efforts to open up their market and their records.
A legislative push to legalize recreational marijuana fizzled, leaving only an industry-backed initiative petition that if approved by voters would ensure those who already have a license to grow and sell medical marijuana get first dibs on the more lucrative new recreational licenses.
The House voted 128-6 to require state regulators to disclose records that detail ownership structures of medical marijuana companies. But when the Senate adjourned a day early, the provision had to be removed in order to avoid killing the underlying bill it was amended to.
Rumblings of an FBI investigation continue to swirl, but after years of scrutiny from the Missouri House, many of the marijuana industry’s loudest critics are leaving thanks to term limits.
Sen. Andrew Koenig
Ostensibly still a member of the Senate’s conservative caucus, Koenig more often than not served as a bridge between the chamber’s warring factions.
He worked behind the scenes to negotiate a truce on myriad issues, and though the battle lines in the Senate seemed to harden, Koenig earned respect — and more importantly, trust — from all sides for his efforts.
He also earned the nickname “bill whisperer” from one of his Democratic colleagues for helping shepherd a compromise on charter school funding out of the Senate after years of failed attempts.
Rob Vescovo and Dean Plocher
The House speaker and majority floor leader didn’t always get along this year. Well, they rarely got along, and there were moments when the tension threatened to derail the chamber. But the typically raucous 163-member House looked downright peaceful most days compared to the goat rodeo across the rotunda.
On his first day as speaker of the House last year, Vescovo declared school-choice as his top priority. And after years of little to no traction on the issue, Vescovo ticked off a pair of major wins in consecutive legislation sessions — creating tax credits for private school tuition and pumping millions into charter schools.
Meanwhile, Plocher scored some big wins of his own (eminent domain reform, narrow open enrollment). He also proved he’s capable of herding cats and playing hardball with the Senate, both traits that could serve him well as he takes over the speaker’s office from Vescovo next year.
The fissure between the conservative caucus and GOP leadership was downright ugly at times.
In a chamber that prides itself on decorum, nasty exchanges on the Senate floor became routine. At one point, two senators had to be physically separated. The chamber’s rules were plumbed to find ways to derail progress by one side and bypass obstructionist tactics by the other.
Over the final week of session, senators publicly accused each other of having questionable integrity, lying to their colleagues and manipulating the process to serve their future political aspirations.
In his farewell speech to the chamber, Sen. Bob Onder declared he’s never experienced more hypocrisy and backstabbing than he has in the Senate, garnering a response from Sen. Holly Thompson Rehder that she hoped it was the last time she’d ever hear Onder’s “pontificating.”
The seven-member Senate conservative caucus dominated the 2022 legislative session.
But most of their top legislative priorities went nowhere.
They wanted a “7-1” map that gerrymandered Democratic U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver’s seat out of existence, but ultimately had to swallow a map that keeps the partisan breakdown of Missouri’s congressional map intact.
They pushed for bills targeting transgender students, critial race theory and vaccine mandates in private businesses. None got much traction in the Senate.
They decried out-of-control state spending, but watched as lawmakers passed the largest budget in Missouri history.
Now, the caucus looks ahead to the August primary in the hopes of adding to its ranks before lawmakers return to Jefferson City next year.
Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt has garnered headlines for months for his efforts to use litigation to undermine mask mandates in public schools.
Most of Schmitt’s lawsuits have been dismissed, as falling COVID numbers caused schools to lift mask rules on their own. But the fallout from the legal crusade continues.
Schmitt’s fellow Republicans in the legislature sent a message that they’ve grown weary of his lawsuits by cutting $500,000 his office requested in the budget. Legislative leaders publicly questioned Schmitt’s motives for the lawsuits, suggesting they were less about public policy and more about bolstering his campaign for the U.S. Senate.
And after relying on a state law passed last year targeting local COVID restrictions to bring his lawsuits, Schmitt was unsuccessful in his efforts to get lawmakers to ensure the law actually does apply to school districts.
Rock Island Trail
Proponents of the Rock Island Trail have lobbied for years for the state to acquire the rail corridor that runs through south-central Missouri from Beaufort in Franklin County to Windsor in Henry County.
This year, with the state flush with cash, they believed it was finally the opportunity they’d been waiting for. And indeed, the Missouri House included nearly $70 million to get the project off the ground.
But the plan scuttled in the Senate, which voted to remove the funding and held its ground when budget negotiators ironed out differences between the two legislative chambers.
This article by Jason Hancock is published by permission of The Missouri Independent.