Missouri returned to the Capitol at noon on Wednesday faced with a lengthy to-do list and still simmering dysfunction.
And while most legislative sessions ease slowly into gear, that won’t be the case in 2022.
Or rather, it can’t be the case.
Lawmakers face fast-approaching deadlines to pass a supplemental budget and work out new Congressional districts for the next decade.
There’s no shortage of other high-priority issues sure to command attention — from abortion to education to public safety. And with an election on the horizon, dozens of lawmakers are either actively jockeying for higher office or openly considering it.
Hovering over the packed agenda and brimming electoral ambition is a seemingly widening divide among Senate Republicans that has bedeviled the majority party for the better part of the last year and essentially split the chamber into three factions.
All of this will play out while COVID-19 cases skyrocket across the state and hospitals warn they could become overwhelmed by the latest wave caused by the omicron variant.
At noon Wednesday, the Missouri General Assembly will begin a five-month sprint to adjournment at 6 p.m. on May 13.
Potential legislative landmines that could derail the 2022 session are not in short supply. But the thing most likely to cause gridlock is the continued split among Senate Republicans.
The members of the Senate’s conservative caucus quarreled with the chamber’s GOP leadership throughout 2021, culminating when the bad blood upended the session over legislation extending Medicaid provider taxes vital to funding the state’s share of the program.
The fissures grew during a special session called to focus on the provider tax issue, and re-emerged last month when the conservative caucus was excluded from a meeting in Jefferson City of GOP senators.
Passing a bill in the Senate requires 18 votes, and by the end of the 2021 session, the partisan split in the Senate was 17 Republicans generally aligned with the leadership, seven in the conservative caucus and 10 Democrats.
The split creates a situation where Democrats can serve as kingmaker, siding with one faction or another to pass — or kill — legislation.
COVID-related delays in the census, coupled with Gov. Mike Parson’s refusal to call the legislature into special session in the fall, means lawmakers need to work quickly to draw eight Congressional districts and get them to the governor’s desk.
But the factional divide within the Senate is already creating headaches for those hoping for a quick redistricting process.
GOP leaders rolled out a proposed map that solidified Democratic U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver’s Kansas City based district and leaving the partisan breakdown of the map unchanged: Six Republicans and two Democrats.
Members of the Senate Conservative Caucus immediately ridiculed the proposal, arguing that it leaves Republican U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner’s suburban St. Louis seat vulnerable in years to come.
They want a map that target’s Cleaver’s seat, solidifies Wagner’s and gives the GOP seven winnable districts — leaving only Democratic U.S. Rep. Cori Bush in St. Louis city.
“Republicans should stop appeasing Democrats and adopt a 7-1 map to ensure Missouri is doing it’s part to stop Joe Biden’s dangerous agenda in 2022,” tweeted Sen. Bill Eigel, R-Weldon Spring.
But a combination of timing, reluctance among GOP leaders and the Republican House majority shrinking thanks to resignations makes a 7-1 map a long shot.
As St. Louis Public Radio’s Jason Rosenbaum has repeatedly pointed out, in order for the map to go into effect before the Aug. 2 primary, lawmakers have to enact an emergency clause. That requires a two-thirds vote in both chambers.
The GOP majority in the House will fall below that threshold this session, after several members resigned to take appointments in Parson’s administration, one member was expelled and another passed away.
In the Senate, if the seven conservative caucus members oppose a map, Republicans will need Democrats to get them over the two-thirds threshold.
Unless Parson calls a special session to run concurrently with the regular session, an emergency clause would be required or the maps won’t go into effect until Aug. 28.
Parson wants to tap Missouri’s enormous budget surplus to provide immediate raises to state employees and enact a new $15 an hour minimum pay for all state jobs. And he hopes to have the plan — and the funding — in place by Feb. 1.
That would require a lightning fast turnaround by legislative appropriations committees.
On top of that, Missouri could lose $2 billion in federal education funding unless a supplemental budget is passed by lawmakers and signed by the governor before March 24.
And the issue of funding Medicaid expansion, which has been contentious in the legislature for years, will once again emerge. Lawmakers will be forced to reckon with expanded eligibility for the program that they didn’t allocate funding for last session.
Some Republicans are already vowing to take another swing at rolling back Medicaid expansion.
A host of bills have already been pre-filed targeting vaccine requirements, public health mitigation efforts and safety-net programs inspired by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Lawmakers targeted local public health orders with legislation last year that limited how long an order can be in place and requiring they be periodically re-approved by local governing bodies, such as a county commission, city council or elected board.
The new law has been used by Attorney General Eric Schmitt to challenge local mask mandates, especially in public schools.
This year, lawmakers appear ready to go even further.
One bill would mandate that natural immunity be considered equivalent to vaccine-induced immunity when implementing a vaccine policy. Another would make an employer liable for any injury that arises from a vaccine requirement.
Republican Rep. Chris Brown of Kansas City is sponsoring legislation that would prohibit any court from imposing or enforcing a moratorium on eviction proceedings unless specifically authorized by state law.
Eviction moratoriums were put into place in certain jurisdictions in response to the economic downturn caused by the pandemic.
After scoring an historic victory last session by enacting a tax credit program to fund scholarships to go toward costs such as private school tuition, school choice advocates are hopeful to build on their success in 2022.
More than 90 bills have been pre-filed in the House related to K-12 schools. They include numerous pieces of legislation aimed at banning certain race-related curriculum, expanding charter schools and recalling local school board members.
There are also so-called “Parents Bill of Rights” bills that would require schools to allow parents to fully review the curricula, books and other educational materials — and would allow the attorney general to sue school districts found in violation.
Republican lawmakers are once again hoping to bar Planned Parenthood or any of its affiliates from participation in the state’s Medicaid program — or from receiving public benefits more broadly.
There are also numerous bills enacting new restrictions on abortion. The one garnering the most attention, sponsored by Republican Rep. Mary Elizabeth Coleman, would mirror a Texas law that empowers private citizens to sue doctors or anyone who facilitates an abortion after a heartbeat is detected.
Other bills would require women undergo an ultrasound prior to an abortion, raise the criminal penalty for an abortion after eight weeks of pregnancy and establish a “Day of Tears” in Missouri to commemorate “all those lost to abortion.”
A litany of election-related bills have been pre-filed so far for the 2022 session.
One bill would prohibit election authorities from sending unsolicited absentee ballot request forms to voters. Others would require voters to produce a government-issued photo ID in order to cast a ballot and allow the secretary of state to inspect the voter rolls of any election authority.
Republican Rep. Ann Kelley of Lamar is sponsoring legislation that would establish an “election integrity committee” to conduct post-election audits.
Lawmakers are also renewing their efforts to make it harder to change state law or the constitution through the initiative petition process.
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