Missouri's legislative session ends in frustration, and unfinished business

May 16, 2015
Originally published on May 17, 2015 9:24 pm

Only one major piece of legislation passed the Missouri General Assembly during its final day of the 2015 session, capping a surreal and strange week that saw the House speaker resign and the Senate paralyzed.

After days of delay, both chambers found time Friday to swiftly approve a must-pass bill necessary for the state to accept its annual $3.5 billion in federal money to pay for the existing Medicaid program and related health care expenses.

But otherwise, aside from the swearing in of a new speaker, Friday’s most notable event was arguably an unexpected wedding proposal delivered – and accepted – in the House chamber.

The legislative casualties of the General Assembly’s disarray included most of the legislation proposed this session to address some of the issues prompted by last summer’s police shooting in Ferguson that killed 18-year-old Michael Brown.

Discontent over that issue, among others, even affected the state House’s traditionally exuberant paper toss at the closing gavel. Some legislators in both parties skipped the ritual, instead standing somberly by their desks to show dissatisfaction.

And even Gov. Jay Nixon, who usually blasts legislators in his annual post-session address, was unusually low-key in his criticisms – in keeping with what he observed had been a disconcerting last few days, and months.

Without naming names, the governor’s sharpest words appeared to be aimed at the behavior of now-former House Speaker John Diehl, R-Town and Country, who officially resigned Friday morning – about 48 hours after his sexual text messages with a college intern had become public.

Diehl was replaced Friday by state Rep. Todd Richardson, R-Poplar Bluff, who the governor pointedly praised as “a well-respected and talented legislator.”

While emphasizing that most of the state’s officials were ethical, Nixon observed, “Sadly, the past week has been a jarring reminder of what happens when people lose sight of what they’re here to do – and who they’re here to serve.”

“The state Capitol should represent the best of Missouri,” Nixon said. “A place where public servants carry out the people’s business transparently and ethically, and where young women and men can learn how their government works without fear of harassment, intimidation or other inappropriate conduct.”

“Now that the session has come to a close, members of the General Assembly face a choice,” he continued, “of whether the past few days will simply reinforce the low expectations many Missourians already have for the legislative process, or whether these events will serve as a wakeup call to do better and act in ways that will make Missourians proud.”

Will definitely veto right-to-work bill

Nixon, a Democrat, announced that he will veto the “right-to-work’’ bill that the GOP-controlled General Assembly approved. The measure would bar employers and unions from requiring all workers in a bargaining unit to pay some union dues. Such a mandate is now called a “closed shop.”

Although the governor’s veto has been expected, Nixon made clear that he plans to spend part of the summer touting his reasons as part of a campaign to dissuade legislators from overriding his veto in the fall.

“I’ll lay out my objections in greater detail in my veto message, but it’s clear that attacking workers and threatening businesses is the wrong economic development strategy for our state and it’s not what Missourians sent us here to do,” the governor said.

Nixon’s key target is a provision, inserted in the Senate, that would subject employers to fines and possible jail time if some workers accuse them of operating a closed shop.

Most Republican leaders in the state House and Senate support “right to work,’’ contending that it would make Missouri more competitive and more attractive to businesses. But both chambers failed to approve the bill by veto-proof margins.

The Senate fight over “right to work” is blamed for the partisan battle that effectively shut down that chamber for the rest of the week. Senate Majority Leader Ron Richard, R-Joplin, led a successful attempt to use a rarely deployed parliamentary maneuver – called “moving the previous question,” or PQ – to shut off opponents’ filibuster and win passage of the measure late Tuesday night. 

But Republicans paid a political price when the Democratic minority spent the next three days successfully blocking action on any other legislation. A deal finally was cut so the Senate could act Friday to approve the health-care bill needed for the $3.5 billion in federal money.

After that vote, the Senate adjourned three hours early, effectively killing any other bills.

The governor claimed that one of the Senate’s casualties was a victory for him and fellow Democrats.

Nixon earlier had vetoed a bill that would reduce the state’s unemployment benefits when the unemployment rate drops below 6 percent, as it has now.

The House overrode his veto on Monday, but the Senate failed to follow suit because of its shutdown. Republican leaders said they planned for the Senate to attempt an override of Nixon’s veto during the fall veto session.

But Nixon said Friday that the Senate had to act before Friday’s adjournment, because of the House override vote. “They only get one bite of the apple,’’ he said.

House leaders disagree on achievements

New House Speaker Richardson conceded that this year has seen “a rather difficult session, at times, for a variety of reasons.”

But he took exception to any assertion that little was done.

Richardson cited the House’s passage of an overhaul of Missouri’s municipal courts system and another bill reconfiguring the state’s school transfer law. “Welfare reform was a signature piece for us this session, as well as medical malpractice,” he said.

But House Minority Leader Jacob Hummel, D-St. Louis, contended that the Republican “seems to have an agenda of cruelty toward poor people – poor children especially.”

Richardson and Hummel were both referring to legislation that will restrict welfare benefits, commonly known as TANF, to three years and nine months. That’s down from the current five-year limit.

Nixon vetoed the bill, but the General Assembly overrode his action.  About 6,000 low-income children in Missouri are expected to lose benefits when the bill goes into effect Jan. 1.

Key Ferguson casualties

Nixon and some legislators in both parties lamented the failure of a bill to update state law regarding police use of deadly force, which was part of the so-called “Ferguson agenda.” 

The House debated and passed a bill aimed at addressing the issue by imposing a stricter definition of when deadly force is acceptable. But the Senate’s general stalemate killed off the measure.

Also killed was a proposal, advanced by Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis, to encourage the use of police body cameras. She said such equipment would protect police and the public.

Some members of the House Black Caucus contended that the General Assembly failed to seriously address the issues highlighted during the Ferguson unrest.

“The General Assembly did not respond at all,” said Rep. Clem Smith, D-Velda Village Hills. “There was a lot of talk in the beginning. … And there has been nothing passed to date that will benefit the people in Ferguson at all.”

Richardson said that education and municipal courts bills were major responses to Michael Brown’s death.

“Those are two signature accomplishments of the session,” Richardson said “And for anybody to say that we didn’t address those issues or didn’t look at them, I just flatly disagree with them.”

Nixon cites some legislative achievements

While acknowledging his differences with the Republicans controlling both chambers, Nixon did praise the General Assembly for a number of its actions during its 4 ½-month session.

Among them:

  • Early passage of a state budget that goes into effect July 1. The governor generally agreed with most of the authorized spending, although he observed that he might withhold some money in response to some last-minute tax breaks approved Friday.
  • A bonding package for various state construction projects, notably the building of a new state mental hospital complex in Fulton.
  • Changing the state’s municipal court system, including restrictions on the percentage of income a municipality can collect from traffic fines or court fees.
  • Restoring caps on non-economic damages that courts can award in medical malpractice cases.

Surprise wedding pitch

It's not unusual for members of House leadership to take turns wielding the gavel during the day-long proceedings. But state Rep. Shelley Keeney, R-Marble Hill, will likely never forget her stint on Friday.

As Richardson and other House members looked on, Sikeston Chamber of Commerce vice president Justin Taylor -- Kenney's boyfriend -- got permission to approach the podium, where he got down on one knee and popped "the question'' to the legislator.

As the chamber cheered, Keeney tearfully -- and happily -- gave her answer. A resounding "yes."

That appeared to be among the few celebratory moments that the General Assembly saw all week.

Marshall Griffin and Ray Howze contributed to this article.

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