The Missouri legislature is on spring break this week, marking the halfway point on what has so far been a difficult session stalled by partisan infighting and gridlock.
Despite a Republican trifecta that leaves the party in control of the House, Senate and governor’s office, legislators have only sent one bill to Gov. Mike Parson’s desk: a supplemental budget that carved out money for pay raises for state employees and funded Medicaid expansion.
And while legislators from Kansas City say they are frustrated by the acrimony, that is only one of their concerns. Lawmakers from the region — and especially Democrats — are apprehensive about bills moving through that could impact public safety, schools and health care in ways that many of their constituents don’t want.
“We hit that ‘No’ button so much that the red is starting to come off the button,” Democratic Rep. Mark Sharp of Kansas City said in reference to voting in the House.
Not unexpectedly, as the minority party, Democrats in the General Assembly, who are mostly clustered around Kansas City, St. Louis and Columbia, face difficulty when it comes to introducing, passing or blocking legislation.
In the Senate, Republican infighting created by a small group of legislators dubbed the “Conservative Caucus,” which includes Harrisonville Sen. Rick Brattin, has halted progress on most issues.
“I will say that every day in the Missouri Senate is growing more and more unpredictable,” Democratic Sen. Lauren Arthur, who represents a district just north of the Missouri River in Clay County, told The Kansas City Beacon. “And currently, a small group of politicians are obstructing noncontroversial pieces of legislation. It’s not because there aren’t good solutions that have bipartisan support. It’s just that right now, the Senate is at a standstill because a few members are throwing fits.”
Just before it adjourned for spring break, the Senate unanimously passed a bipartisan bill cosponsored by Arthur and Republican Sen. Cindy O’Laughlin of Shelbina that would require schools to expand literacy programs and requires schools to test students from kindergarten to third grade.
In a more controversial move, it sent a bill sponsored by Parkville Republican Sen. Tony Luetkemeyer to the House that would set new standards for police funding in Kansas City.
Policing bill heads to House
Luetkemeyer’s bill would mandate that 25% of Kansas City’s general revenue be allocated to the Kansas City Police Department, an increase from the current state mandate of 20%. It passed the Senate 22-8 last week, with one Republican voting against the bill and one Democrat voting in favor.
Luetkemeyer has said that his motivation for introducing the bill occurred last May, when Mayor Quinton Lucas and the Kansas City Council hastily passed a measure that would have reallocated $42 million of the police department’s budget to community policing and prevention. A court later ruled that the council’s effort was illegal, because the budget had already been finalized.
Senate Minority Leader John Rizzo, who represents parts of eastern Jackson County, voted to pass the bill. He said during floor debate that he understands Lucas’ frustration with a process that requires the city to fund the police department, but allows it almost no say in how the money is spent. But he said backlash from the Republican-controlled legislature was predictable.
“I understand the animosity, because I’d be as angry as the mayor probably is that he is being dictated to what he can and can’t do, because I think that’s what’s happening,” Rizzo said.
“But I would certainly not antagonize a legislature that has already shown the will and follow through,” he added.
Other Democrats representing Kansas City say the funding threshold is being forced upon the city, and worry that the bill doesn’t set strict enough guidelines for how the funding should be allocated.
“We hear about the importance of hiring new officers and making sure that their wages are competitive. Just simply increasing the funding doesn’t guarantee that that’s going to take place,” Arthur said. “There’s nothing in that legislation that says, ‘We are going to impose evidence-based programs that prevent crime.’”
The City Council has set aside $450,000 on legal services to oppose the bill.
“It feels like a big government mandate,” Arthur added. “It feels like a bill that GOP members should hate. It’s something that is being forced on Kansas City. And the goal is to pass it only because it applies only to Kansas City and not to other parts of the state. So it’s been a little frustrating as someone representing the Kansas City area that this is being dictated to us.”
Luetkemeyer did not respond to several requests from The Beacon to discuss his bill.
Worries about school competition arise in House
Earlier this month, the House passed two education-related bills, one that would alter how charter schools receive public funding and one that would give students more options about which public school districts they can attend.
Rep. Maggie Nurrenbern, a Clay County Democrat and former educator, said during floor debate that she feared the bills would result in “an extreme pitting of school districts against each other.”
“Really, they’re just going to pit families against other families,” Nurrenbern said. “It’s going to be all about competition now, instead of collaboration.”
The charter school bill would create a new funding formula that would funnel money to charter schools through school districts, based on enrollment. That would have an impact in Kansas City, where roughly as many students attend charter schools as are enrolled in Kansas City Public Schools.
Democrats also presented concerns about an open enrollment proposal that would give students more choice over which district they attend, arguing that allowing transfers would harm districts that already are struggling.
Sharp, who represents south Kansas City, was able to work with the bill’s sponsor and carve out some protections for the Hickman Mills School District, which is the region’s only district without full accreditation.
Sharp said he has to plan for the worst-case scenario when it comes to legislation like the open enrollment bill and sometimes make concessions on legislation he doesn’t agree with.
“We have to find creative ways to try to protect our districts. We do,” he said. “And if we don’t, who will? So it does put us in some weird spots at times.”
Lawmakers look to curb Medicaid expansion
Funding for Medicaid expansion, which voters approved in 2020, was allocated in this year’s supplemental budget as the state works to expand coverage.
Despite voters opting by seven points statewide to expand Medicaid eligibility, and the state Supreme Court ordering Missouri to carry out the voter-approved expansion, Republicans are still looking for ways to restrict some of that coverage.
In mid-February, the GOP supermajority in the House advanced a measure 95-45 that would give the legislature the option to defund Medicaid expansion. It also added a work requirement for Missourians aged 19 to 65. If approved by the Senate, the measure would have to go in front of voters again.
“We have been in this fight for over a decade,” Nurrenbern said Wednesday. “And it is just another battle and another year. The people of Missouri want Medicaid to cover more people. The special interests are still fighting. They lost. And this simply again is another attempt to undo not just the will of Missouri voters, but to really hurt the most vulnerable in our city.”
Arthur said feedback from her constituents shows continued interest in funding Medicaid expansion and other measures, including increased access to health care for new mothers. One bill under consideration would provide one year of maternal health care coverage for new mothers.
“I have heard from a number of constituents about extending Medicaid coverage for postpartum care. And we know that Missouri is towards the bottom in terms of too many maternal deaths,” Arthur said. “This is a solution that has been supported by pro-life groups, pro-choice groups, Republicans, Democrats; it’s one of the best bills that we could pass out of the Missouri Senate.”
Currently, four bills to provide postpartum care for one year after giving birth have been introduced in the House; only one has been referred to a committee, where it has yet to receive a hearing.
Sharp pointed to contrasting fates of those bills and a recent bill that did receive a committee hearing — a move to criminalize the medical termination of ectopic pregnancies, which are not medically viable and can be life-threatening to the mother. Senate Majority Leader Caleb Rowden of Columbia said the bill would be dead on arrival if it made it to the upper chamber.
“It’s just discouraging,” Sharp said of the bill, sponsored by Republican Branson Rep. Brian Seitz, which was referred to a committee by House leadership, a move necessary for advancing a bill through the General Assembly.
“We have good bills sitting that hadn’t been referred yet, but we have bills like this that get referred to committee,” Sharp said. “It makes us all look bad, makes the institution look bad when we have good bills that have not been referred.”