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Opinion: Missouri legislature proves unpredictable

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The 2021 Missouri legislative session was one of the most unusual and unpredictable of the legislative gatherings I've covered in some 50 years.

Despite Republicans holding an overwhelming majority in both the House and Senate, Democrats scored some major victories for issues they pushed including restrictions on police choke holds, extending court-order protection orders against abusers and establishing a statewide database to track opioid drug prescriptions.

Democrats scored enough victories that the end-of-session release by House Democrats was headlined, "House Democrats score multiple wins." That statement was quite a contrast to the usual statements by the minority party caucuses complaining about the majority party's agenda.

Republicans also scored major victories with legislation to prohibit state and local governments from enforcing federal actions that might infringe on firearms rights, creating a system to help cover the costs for parents to home school or send their children or to private schools, protecting businesses as well as health care workers from COVID-19 liability lawsuits, and stopping Medicaid expansion.

That both parties could tout successes confirmed a growing sense I had during the session that there was more cross-party collaboration than in recent years on a few issues.

The artful combination of law enforcement bills sent to the governor is the most obvious example. The two bills make it a crime for protesters to block highway traffic, restrict police use of choke holds, establish a state database of police use of force and provide rights for police facing disciplinary actions.

Contributing to the unusual nature of this year's legislative session was passage of a couple of tax increases – usually a dead-on-arrival idea for Republicans.

One expands the sales tax to the online purchases that had been exempt from the state sales tax. The other bill raises the motor fuel tax. But each measure had a wrinkle that made it more tolerable for Republicans.

The shift of purchases from local businesses to online merchants made it a local-business protection issue touted by Republican Gov. Mike Parson. In addition, the online sales tax expansion includes income tax cuts which legislative staff estimate could be larger than the money generated by the online tax expansion.

As for the motor fuel tax, you could get a refund of the higher tax by sending the Revenue Department a receipt of your receipts – making the extra gas tax almost a voluntary contribution. Of course, companies operating fleets of vehicles likely are more disciplined to keep and file those receipts than the average Missourian.

Despite the artful compromises, there also were aspects of the 2021 session that struck me as legislative chaos.

The biggest example of chaos was the legislature's failure on the last day of the session to renew a mechanism by which the state gets well more than $2 billion a year in federal funds for Medicaid.

That money is so critical to the Medicaid budget that it guarantees a special session of the legislature this summer or early fall.

Action on the measure was stalled by Republican senators seeking an amendment to prohibit Medicaid covering some forms of birth control.

One sign of the chaotic nature of the session was that the Senate Democratic leader made the surprise motion simply to adjourn the annual session four hours early when it became clear there was no path forward on Medicaid.

I cannot remember the minority party leader ever making the motion to prematurely halt a chamber's work on the last day of a session.

More chaotic nature of the legislative session was the Senate's Republican conservative caucus that continued to be a thorn in the side of Republican leaders.

It became clearer this session that the Senate essentially is composed of three blocks – Democrats, Republicans and the Republican conservative caucus.

In fact, two of the this year's major Republican-sponsored issues sent to the governor – the gas tax increase and the opioid prescription monitoring program – failed to win a majority of Republican Senate votes, clearing the Senate only because of Democratic votes.

Another factor to the chaos was the large number of bills that got bloated with amendments unrelated to the original subject of the bill, as prohibited by the state Constitution.

How does one of the legislature's major crime bills have anything to do with a provision involving pesticide applicator licensing?

It suggests that one legacy of this session will rest with the courts involving bloated bills and the legislature's refusal to fund voter-approved Medicaid expansion.

Phill Brooks has been a statehouse reporter since 1970, making him the dean of the Missouri statehouse press corps. He is director of Missouri Digital News and an emeritus faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism.

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