The Kansas City Star: Winners and losers of Missouri’s 2016 legislative session

By Jason Hancock

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JEFFERSON CITY

More than 2,000 bills were introduced during the 2016 session of the Missouri General Assembly. Only 138 found their way to the governor’s desk.

A lot of priorities never got off the ground. Others sailed across the finish line. Most died somewhere in between, culled by a legislative process often mired in gridlock.

Complicating the process was a looming election. The entire House is up for grabs this fall, along with half the Senate. A handful of lawmakers are running for statewide office, and term limits are driving many more back into the private sector.

Missouri’s 4 1/2 -month legislative session ended last Friday at 6 p.m. Here’s a look back at some of the winners and losers:
Winners

Senate Democrats

Democrats hold only eight of the 34 seats in the Missouri Senate. And party unity hasn’t always been the caucus’s strong suit. But this year, when it looked like Republicans were set to roll over the minority party once again, Democrats actually managed to score some big victories.

They won major concessions in a voter ID bill that would still allow those without photo identification to cast ballots (and they nearly got a couple weeks of early voting included in the bill, if not for the county clerks’ vehement opposition to the idea). They didn’t defeat a “religious freedom” amendment, but their 39-hour filibuster raised the issue’s profile and helped fuel the opposition that ended up killing the bill in the House. Tough new regulations on Planned Parenthood and restrictions on public employee unions were stopped dead in their tracks.

The party’s priorities, mainly an expansion of Medicaid to 300,000 uninsured Missourians, were largely ignored. And on the session’s final day, a wide-ranging gun bill that Democrats abhor was passed and sent to the governor.

But for the most part, Senate Democrats punched above their weight in 2016, and the party is hopeful the elections this fall will add at least two members to its caucus.

Republicans seeking higher office

Politics and legislating tend to overlap a lot. Unsurprisingly, that dynamic amps up during an election year.

Sen. Will Kraus is a Lee’s Summit Republican running for secretary of state. After years of trying, Kraus can finally tell Republican primary voters he got voter ID — a major GOP legislative priority for more than a decade — across the finish line.

Sen. Eric Schmitt, a St. Louis County Republican, is running for treasurer. He sponsored two years’ worth of municipal court reform legislation, seen as the biggest legislative response to the unrest in the St. Louis County suburb of Ferguson.

Sen. Mike Parson, a Bolivar Republican running for lieutenant governor, pushed through several agriculture bills sure to win the hearts of rural voters.

But no one took his turn in the media spotlight more often than Sen. Kurt Schaefer of Columbia, who is running in a hotly contested Republican primary for attorney general.

Schaefer spent much of the year relentlessly going after Planned Parenthood, at one point even threatening to throw the health care organization’s regional leader in jail. He pushed for a “stand your ground” law that eventually was approved and sent to the governor. And he championed a priority of his largest political benefactor — GOP megadonor Rex Sinquefield — by pushing for a repeal of Kansas City’s earnings tax. All the while, Schaefer regularly took to the Senate floor to lambaste President Barack Obama and the federal government, earning free media attention along the way.

Organized labor

Every year, labor unions show up in Jefferson City with targets on their backs.

Republicans hold super majorities in both the House and Senate, and laws like “right to work” and “paycheck protection” sit at or near the top of their legislative agenda. Major donors like David Humphreys of Joplin pour hundreds of thousands of dollars into political action committees and candidates’ coffers to push anti-union legislation. And business groups like the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry and Associated Industries of Missouri plead for lawmakers to take action.

Yet every year, despite shrinking membership, unions emerge virtually unscathed.

Unions have just enough friends in the Republican Party to join with Democrats to fight off legislation. GOP Sens. Ryan Silvey of Kansas City and Gary Romine of Farmington helped Democrats kill paycheck protection in the session’s final days. And this may have been the GOP’s last shot at anti-union laws for a while, if Democrats manage to hold on to the governor’s mansion and pick up a few seats in the House and Senate.

Interns

The biggest legislative story of 2015 was the intern-related scandals that forced the resignations of House Speaker John Diehl, a St. Louis County Republican, and Sen. Paul LeVota, an Independence Democrat.

In the weeks between the resignations, dozens of women — current and former interns, lobbyists, legislators and staff — told The Star that sexual harassment was commonplace in the Missouri Capitol.

When he took over as speaker of the Missouri House following Diehl’s resignation, Rep. Todd Richardson of Poplar Bluff made it clear he was determined to improve the tarnished public image of the General Assembly and clean up a Capitol culture that had existed for decades.

Altering a deeply rooted culture takes longer than one session. But the general consensus is that Richardson made strides toward his goal.

The House approved new policies that include mandatory sexual harassment training for lawmakers, a ban on fraternization and the creation of an ombudsman position to serve as a liaison between interns, House administration and universities.

Richardson also moved swiftly when one of his fellow Republicans got involved in a scandal, making sure his colleagues knew he was serious by publicly calling for the lawmaker’s resignation. When a former Democratic lobbyist was accused by several interns of harassment, the House tried to banish him from the Capitol.
Losers

Social conservatives

Advocates for a “religious freedom” amendment to the Missouri Constitution thought they’d won the day when Senate Republicans quashed a Democratic filibuster and passed the bill on to the House. But backlash from gay-rights advocates and Missouri’s largest corporations killed the bill in a House committee.
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How the Missouri House committee voted on SJR39, the ‘religious freedom’ amendment

After a half hour of emotional testimony that left many in the room in tears, the House Emerging Issues Committee deadlocked 6-6 on Senate Joint Resolution 39, or SJR39.
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Anti-abortion activists were thrilled that lawmakers blocked taxpayer money from going to Planned Parenthood, but Gov. Jay Nixon has said he’ll look for ways to circumvent that ban.

The House passed a wide-ranging bill imposing new regulations on Planned Parenthood, but despite pressure from Missouri Right to Life, the Senate never took a vote on the bill. Same goes for a so-called “personhood” amendment that critics said would outlaw abortion completely. After passing the House, it never even got a hearing in the Senate.

And in the legislative session’s final week, a judge ruled that the Columbia Planned Parenthood clinic could keep its license to perform abortions.

Sunshine Law

Missouri lawmakers continue to argue they aren’t subject to the state’s open-records laws.

When The Star requested the emails of former Rep. Don Gosen, a Republican from St. Louis County who resigned from the legislature in January under a cloud of suspicion, the House’s attorney said the emails were not public record. The Associated Press ran into a similar wall of opposition when it requested documents from both the House and Senate. House Minority Leader Jake Hummel, a St. Louis Democrat, was the only one of Missouri’s top four lawmakers to provide requested documents to the AP.

Facing a lawsuit by a liberal activist group over some senators refusing to allow video recording of public hearings, the Senate continued to regularly block filming of committee meetings. A plan to move the press off the Senate floor, where it has covered the chamber’s proceedings for nearly a century, is expected to move forward this summer.

And several bills passed this year would block public access to some records, such as police body-camera footage, agricultural data and criminal records.

Uber

The San Francisco-based vehicle-for-hire company has managed to win concessions to its industry in more than 30 states.

It figured that Missouri would be next, especially since the company had the full-throated support of Richardson, who even appeared at a news conference in the Capitol behind a lectern emblazoned with the state seal and the Uber logo. The company hired 13 lobbyists, including a former Missouri House speaker, and set out to get its legislation to the governor’s desk.

But it wasn’t to be.

The bill in question would have repealed a Kansas City ordinance enacted last spring and replaced it with more lenient statewide standards. Kansas City leaders fought back hard, arguing that the statewide regulations didn’t do enough to ensure public safety. Uber, along with rival vehicle-for-hire company Lyft, continued their push until the session’s final days. But in the end, the legislation didn’t get one second of debate on the Senate floor. If it had, Silvey and Democratic Sen. Jason Holsman, both of Kansas City, vowed to filibuster.

Ethics reform

Republican leaders in the House and Senate entered 2016 by declaring ethics reform a top legislative priority.

When the session adjourned, both sides admitted that although they made progress, they fell short of what they’d hoped to accomplish.

Three ethics bills cleared the General Assembly and were signed by the governor: a six-month waiting period before lawmakers can become paid lobbyists, a ban on lawmakers getting paid to be political consultants while in office and restrictions on the use of campaign funds by former lawmakers.

But House-backed legislation banning lobbyist gifts to lawmakers was killed in the Senate, meaning the thousands of dollars worth of free meals, free event tickets and free travel will continue.

And despite numerous attempts by Sen. David Pearce, a Warrensburg Republican, the Senate refused to reinstate voter-imposed campaign contribution limits that lawmakers repealed nearly a decade ago. Pearce called his 2008 vote to repeal contribution limits the biggest regret of his political career, noting that vote opened the door to six-figure contributions becoming regular occurrences in Missouri.

Nixon captured the mood of many ethics reform advocates while addressing the media after the legislature adjourned for the year Friday.

“Yes, (legislators) made some steps forward this year,” the governor said. “But let’s not dislocate our arms by patting ourselves too much on the back.”

Jason Hancock: 573-634-3565, @J_Hancock

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