JEFFERSON CITY - Gov. Eric Greitens is years removed from his college boxing days and his time abroad as a Navy SEAL, yet he has retained a bellicose attitude as he ventures into Missouri politics.
The first-time Republican elected official presided over powerful GOP majorities in both chambers of the Missouri legislature, and make no mistake, the General Assembly took strides that will hearten conservatives and business leaders.
Greitens and Republican lawmakers had early success passing a law to prevent mandatory union dues, but GOP reforms to Missouri's labor organizations and civil court procedures did not come without chaos. Some of that, such as the Senate's 11th-hour feuding Friday, appeared to be rooted in partisan division. Other times, like when a few senators wanted to raise their own pay, Greitens inserted himself into the fray.
Speaking to reporters at his second official press conference since taking office, Greitens' language was colored by the aggression that has marked his tenure.
"We've finished the first round of a 10-round fight, and we hit 'em hard, and we won the first round for the people of Missouri," Greitens said at the Friday evening press conference.
Beyond describing his first four months in office with a boxing metaphor, Greitens repeatedly referred to himself as a fighter — against liberals, lobbyists, plaintiffs' attorneys, "corrupt special interests" and elected officials in his own party.
"Each and every day, we fought for the people of Missouri, and I'm proud of the fights that we've won," Greitens said.
If this was Greitens' first round, he threw plenty of jabs and landed his share, though he seemed aware that he is yet to deliver a knockout blow. And on Friday, he parried questions about A New Missouri, Inc., a nonprofit run by campaign aides.
A New Missouri's stated goal is to promote conservative policies and advocate for Greitens' agenda, including messages about decreasing lobbyists' influence and criticizing Sen. Claire McCaskill. Ostensibly separate from the governor's office and his campaign committee, A New Missouri doesn't have to say who gives it money.
The nonprofit faced backlash after publishing a Republican state senator's cellphone number. A New Missouri also prepared attack ads against several other senators and prompted a stir about ethics at a time when a bill limiting lobbyist gifts — a stated priority of the House and Greitens — was stalled in the Senate.
Greitens claims to have no day-to-day involvement with A New Missouri, and he declined to provide specifics about his role with the organization when asked Friday.
The governor also dodged when asked whether he would call a special session to take care of unfinished business. He wouldn't say yes or no, and he returned to his boxing metaphor to hint at some summer lawmaking.
GOP pleased despite frantic finish
Republican leaders in both the House and Senate seemed happier than Greitens with what they accomplished since January.
House Speaker Todd Richardson, R-Poplar Bluff, was pleased with the passage of "right-to-work" legislation, the full funding of the K-12 school aid formula, statewide regulations for ride-hailing companies like Uber, and several efforts that could make it tougher for plaintiffs to win lawsuits.
The name of the game for GOP representatives was to make Missouri a better place for businesses, and with Greitens poised to sign numerous bills backed by the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry, they scored several other points to that end.
This was evident when it came to tort reform, which included legislation to change Missouri's standard for expert witnesses, redefine what evidence can be presented at trials and increase the difficulty of proving discriminatory conduct in the workplace.
The employment discrimination bill raised the hackles of House Democrats, many of whom railed against the measure and abstained from voting on it in protest. In a taunting news release, Democrats jeered at Republicans for passing what they said was a record low number of bills in 2017.
But for many Republicans, including Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard, fewer bills means less government, which is fine by them. Richard, R-Joplin, was visibly tired but verbally energized about the bills the General Assembly did pass.
"We have done things that I never dreamed possible," Richard told reporters Friday.
Despite limiting Republican efforts on the final day to the passage of a minimum wage nullification bill, Senate Democrats were less than thrilled with the session, which brought about significant blows to labor unions.
"Today was pretty dismal for the Missouri Senate," said Senate Minority Leader Gina Walsh, D-St. Louis County, on Friday.
Other late-breaking action
Friday was notable for the Senate's transformation into a procedural quagmire and the nail-biting last moments in the House that saw GOP leadership cave and agree to a Senate proposal to fund disabilities and senior care that state representatives derided as ill-advised and unconstitutional.
But dozens of other bills were up in the air as well, including legislation filed by some Ozarks legislators.
A prescription drug monitoring program that seemed poised to pass earlier in the session failed, though its sponsor held out hope until the very last.
Rep. Holly Rehder, R-Sikeston, says a version of the drug monitoring system — a tool in the fight against opioid abuse — that emerged after heated negotiations could very well come back next year. For now, though, Missouri remains the only state in the nation without such a drug monitoring database.
A REAL ID compliance measure was approved and sent to Greitens on Thursday. The measure overcame concerns about personal privacy and data security and, if signed by the governor, will allow the Department of Revenue to issue driver's licenses that will allow Missourians to fly on airplanes and visit military bases.
A proposal to create adult high schools around the state, including one in or near Greene County, was sent to Greitens on Thursday night. Similar language was in a bill filed by Sen. Jay Wasson, R-Nixa.
A bill containing a Blue Alert provision passed the legislature — but not the version containing "Hailey's Law."
The Amber Alert-improvement language inspired by the death of Springfield 10-year-old Hailey Owens languished on a separate Blue Alert bill that was not agreed to by the Senate and House. The version that did pass includes several crime-related provisions, including a new crime of "illegal re-entry" for deported immigrants who commit felonies upon returning to Missouri.
For the fifth year, language allowing Greene County voters to decide whether to approve a 1/4-cent sales tax hike for early childhood education programs did not pass. Sen. Bob Dixon, R-Springfield, had tried to put the question to local voters, but anti-tax sentiment in the Senate played a role in the bill's failure to advance.
Ride-hailing services like Lyft and Uber are now authorized to operate across Missouri, but statewide protections for home-sharing services like Airbnb and HomeAway will have to wait another year. The legislation was backed by Rep. Sonya Anderson, R-Springfield. She was able to shepherd it through the House, but her bill never received a hearing in the Senate.
Rep. Kevin Austin, R-Springfield, was instrumental in the passage of Senate Bill 43 (the employment discrimination bill), and he and Speaker Pro Tem were kept busy with their House leadership roles Friday.
Austin also was able to secure the passage of a bill meant to prevent hospitals from being liable for an independent physician's negligence. That legislation, HB 452, is ready for Greitens' signature and is another element of Republican-led tort reform activity.
Lawmakers also managed to advance a version of language from Rep. Lynn Morris, R-Ozark, that would allow qualified medical school graduates to serve as assistant physicians.
If Greitens signs the bill containing Morris' legislation, it would be good news for Tricia Derges, the founder of the Lift Up Springfield medical and dental clinic. Derges had been fearful she would have to close the clinic if lawmakers did not pass a version of the bill.
"In these times when it has been hard for people to agree and come together, it was a blessing to see the Senate and House speak very loudly together on this critical issue, so that the under-served of this state knows that they are important," Derges said in an email, thanking Morris, Wasson, Dixon and Sen. Jeanie Riddle, R-Mokane.
"... And in a time our House and Senate have received so many negative comments, I want to be sure they hear that they did something really good, really positive and have made a lot of people very happy."
News-Leader reporter Jackie Rehwald contributed reporting.
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