Tumultuous Missouri Legislative Session Ends With House Speaker's Resignation

by | May 18, 2015

By Virginia Young

Pat Dougherty, a former legislator who lobbies for social welfare issues for Catholic Charities of St. Louis, left the Missouri Capitol five hours before the legislative session ended Friday.

With a Senate filibuster snuffing out bills' chances, there was little reason to stay.

"I've been coming up here for 38 years, and this has been the most challenging and frustrating session I've been in," he said.

He wasn't alone.

Throughout the Capitol, critics fumed about the logjam that killed scores of bills and made the session one of the least productive in recent memory.

When the final House gavel fell, 130 bills had made it across the finish line, compared with 190 in 2014. Senators had already left the building; they went home nearly three hours before the mandatory 6 p.m. adjournment.

It was an emotional session, bookended by two unique events: the suicide of Auditor Tom Schweich in February and the resignation of House Speaker John Diehl on Thursday. Diehl left after admitting he had exchanged sexually charged text messages with a college freshman working in the Capitol as an intern.

"In my 13 years, it was the most bizarre" session, said Rep. Kevin Engler, R-Farmington.

Even so, the Legislature's huge Republican majorities passed some of their top priorities, including complex bills revamping municipal courts, the school transfer law and the welfare system.

Citing those bills and passage of record funding for K-12 education, the new House speaker, Todd Richardson, R-Poplar Bluff, called it "a very successful legislative session."

House Democrats criticized the welfare bill, which will shorten the time a low-income family can draw benefits to three years and nine months from the current five years. Democrats said the change, along with a bill reducing the number of weeks that people could receive unemployment benefits, would poke holes in the social safety net.

"We've hurt kids," said House Minority Leader Jake Hummel, D-St. Louis. "We've cut unemployment. All we've done is attack families."

Gov. Jay Nixon, however, accentuated the positive at his post-session news conference.

Nixon, a Democrat, congratulated legislators for passing the municipal courts bill, as well as a compromise on medical malpractice damage caps and a $300 million bonding package for higher education and state building projects.

In contrast to last year, when he lambasted legislators for passing special tax breaks on the last day, a mellow Nixon said that on the state budget, "there was more agreement than disagreement" this year between him and the Legislature.

Nixon seemed unconcerned that senators passed only two bills during the final week and adjourned nearly three hours early.

"A lot of issues were moved to me early" and thus, escaped the final-week stalemate, Nixon said. "I think there was an effort on their behalf to front-load some things."

Nixon's disappointments included the failure of a legislative ethics bill and a gas tax increase to raise money for state highway construction. He called them "unfinished business," though he stopped short of saying he would outline a specific highway funding proposal or follow through on a pledge to lead an initiative petition drive to strengthen Missouri's ethics laws.

Nixon did promise to veto the controversial "right to work" bill that caused the Senate meltdown.

The bill, which would bar unions from collecting fees from nonmembers to cover collective bargaining and other costs, passed after the GOP majority in the Senate used a rare parliamentary maneuver to end an eight-hour filibuster and force a vote on the bill.

Democrats then shut down everything else, preventing bills from coming up on the floor for debate.

As a result, all the House could do was pass versions of bills that had already cleared the Senate. House frustrations crested during the session's final hour Friday, when lawmakers were asked to accept the Senate version of a workers' compensation bill that most agreed was flawed.

Rep. John McCaherty, R-High Ridge, said the House should not "bend at the will of the Senate every single time because they got mad and went home."

Rep. Kurt Bahr, R-O'Fallon, agreed. "I don't want to tell my constituents that we passed a bill that was mostly good but it had a little turd on it and were going to fix that next year."

The bill failed.

Engler, for his part, was unhappy that the impasse killed a bill raising the asset limit governing how much money elderly and disabled people can have and still be eligible for Medicaid. He said the asset cap had not been raised since 1973 and thus, people can't stockpile enough to make home repairs, such as buying a new furnace.

Also left on the scrap heap were several bills spurred by last year's unrest in Ferguson, such as measures requiring police to wear body cameras, updating the state's use-of-force law and mandating that police undergo diversity training.

The camera bill died after a dispute arose over letting cities bar public access to the camera footage. Some lawmakers were concerned about the public's right to privacy. A sponsor of one of the bills, Sen. Doug Libla, R-Poplar Bluff, said he didn't want someone's embarrassing moment "to show up on a TV program."

Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, D-University City, said the Senate shutdown doomed the bill bringing the state's deadly force law into compliance with U.S. Supreme Court decisions.

"Now, any person in my district can be killed and still, the person who killed them doesn't have to be prosecuted," said Chappelle-Nadal, who protested for months after the death of Michael Brown in her legislative district last August.

But Chappelle-Nadal was happy with a measure that would revise a problem-plagued transfer law that allows children in unaccredited school districts to transfer to higher-performing ones.

"This bill does more for kids in poverty than any other bill has done in 30 years," she said. "It's my greatest work."

Senate Education Committee Chairman David Pearce, R-Warrensburg, called the bill "a great bipartisan effort."

The bill would place no limits on the amount of tuition charged for transfer students, instead expanding virtual and charter school options.

Some argue that offering students an option to take online courses and transfer in-district first will cut down on the number of students transferring out. But opponents say that, without putting a cap on the tuition receiving districts charge sending districts, schools like Normandy will go bankrupt.

Republicans touted the municipal court bill as the keystone of their Ferguson-related agenda.

The bill is aimed at stopping cities in St. Louis County from using their police departments and courts as ATMs by aggressively writing tickets for petty offenses and jailing the poor when they can't pay.

It would limit fines for minor traffic offenses to $300 and prevent cities from adding "failure to appear" charges when defendants miss court dates. Cities in St. Louis County could generate no more than 12.5 percent of their operating revenue from ticket fines and fees, down from 30 percent.

"It's going to make a positive impact on addressing a lot of the issues that have been highlighted recently" by a Department of Justice report on civil rights abuses in Ferguson, said the sponsor, Sen. Eric Schmitt, R-Glendale.

A number of black legislators opposed the bill because of the lower threshold it sets for St. Louis County ticket revenue compared to the rest of the state.

Said Rep. Clem Smith, D-Velda Village Hills: "That piece of legislation barely touches Ferguson at all and would harm many other cities. From the beginning, there was no plan to have any sort of Ferguson agenda."

Nixon was ecstatic that lawmakers sent him a bond package. He said upgrading higher education buildings would strengthen the schools and "create thousands of good jobs in every corner of the state."

Earlier, Nixon surprised legislators by signing all 13 budget bills for the 2016 fiscal year that begins July 1. He still could withhold money from the $26 billion operating budget if revenue dips.

"I'm going to make sure we have adequate reserves to handle the ups and downs of the economy," he said Friday.

If he does restrict spending, a measure approved by voters in November allowing lawmakers to override the governor's withholds could get its first airing during the September veto session.

Just like overriding a veto, lawmakers would need a two-thirds majority vote -- 109 in the House and 23 in the Senate -- to override a withhold.

Next year's budget got an anticipated $60 million boost after lawmakers agreed to a measure that would allow residents to pay back late taxes without facing penalties. Part of that money was earmarked for dental care for Medicaid. Nixon has signed the bill, but said Friday that he wasn't sure when low-income adults might be eligible for dental visits.

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