JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Missouri's Republican-led Legislature kicked off the 2022 annual session Wednesday amid a coronavirus surge and during an election year.
Seating in House hearing rooms and the chamber is limited to curb the spread of COVID-19. Most hearings in the House and Senate are being livestreamed, with live audio or video when the chambers are in session. Masks are not required in the Capitol.
Most of the 163-member House is up for reelection this year, and numerous lawmakers are running for U.S. Congress, or the state or U.S. Senate. Upcoming elections tend to drive lawmakers to push more extreme and attention-grabbing policies that could help them win a primary or general election.
Intraparty divisions among Republicans were evident Wednesday, as members of a Senate conservative caucus accused party leaders of lacking integrity for backing away from funding restrictions on Planned Parenthood during a special session last year. Sen. Denny Hoskins, of Warrensburg, said “dishonest people” had created “an erosion of trust here in the Senate.” He criticized GOP leadership for holding a “super special secret caucus meeting” without inviting the conservative caucus.
But in brief opening remarks, Republican Senate President Pro Dave Schatz said he was hopeful of a productive session, because lawmakers have shown they can “put personal differences aside in order to overcome the obstacles that we have before us.”
House Republicans started the year missing three members who had either resigned or were poached by Republican Gov. Mike Parson for his administration. A fourth, Republican Rep. Tom Hannegan, died in October. The House held a moment of silence to honor him Wednesday.
Another two House members resigned Wednesday, putting House Republicans just below the 109-member threshold needed to override gubernatorial vetoes and make bills take effect immediately upon the governor's signature without help from Democrats. This means Republicans will need Democratic support to ensure the Legislature's redrawn congressional district lines take effect in time for elections this year.
“That gives House Democrats a unique opportunity,” House Minority Leader Crystal Quade said.
Parson’s spokeswoman said Tuesday that the governor has not received a request to call special elections to fill any of the vacancies.
Here are some of the issues lawmakers likely will consider this session:
The conservative-leaning Supreme Court has indicated in arguments that it would uphold Mississippi’s ban on abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, and may even overturn the nationwide right that has existed for nearly 50 years. A decision isn’t expected before June, but Republicans in Missouri have already filed bills to further restrict abortions. Rep. Mary Elizabeth Coleman, of Arnold, filed a bill to ban nearly all abortions in Missouri, mirroring a new Texas law. Her proposal would allow private citizens to sue clinics, doctors and anyone else who facilitates an abortion after cardiac activity is detected. It also would further limit funding to the state’s only abortion provider, Planned Parenthood.
Republican Rep. Sara Walsh, of Ashland, wants to repeal a gas tax increase passed by lawmakers just last year. Increasing the gas tax to fund road and bridge maintenance has been a top priority for Parson, but some GOP legislators were furious when the increase passed. The current law will gradually raise the state’s 17-cent-a-gallon gas tax to 29.5 cents over five years. Buyers can get a refund if they keep their receipts. It’s unclear if Walsh’s proposal to undo the new law has any momentum.
Republicans' proposed election policies include closed primaries, meaning only voters who register as a Republican or Democrat could vote in their party's primary. GOP supporters suspect Democrats vote in Republican primaries for the candidate most likely to lose in a general election. Meanwhile, many Democratic lawmakers filed bills to allow widespread absentee voting without an excuse.
GOP lawmakers continue to try to raise the threshold for voters to amend the Missouri Constitution or propose new laws via initiative petitions. Proposals filed this year would require 60% or higher voter approval to amend the Constitution instead of the current standard, which is a simple majority. Other proposals would require more voter signatures per congressional district to get measures on the ballot. The effort comes after voters recently expanded the number of people eligible for Medicaid health care and legalized medical marijuana after the GOP Legislature for years refused to do so.
Missouri lawmakers are responsible for redrawing U.S. congressional districts for the state based on 2020 census data. Republican lawmakers have already proposed redrawn congressional districts that appear to follow the current partisan split. They face a tight deadline of March 28 to send new maps to Parson and avoid having judges take over the task.
Citizen panels are responsible for redrawing state legislative districts. Last month, the Senate commission failed to agree and the House commission offered up two proposed maps instead of one.
Republican lawmakers have filed dozens of bills to stop coronavirus vaccine and mask mandates at schools, private businesses and other places. Proposed legislation would make local governments and private businesses with mandates assume liability if people experience adverse reactions. A bill by GOP Speaker Pro Tem John Wiemann would require businesses and governments to treat immunity developed by a prior COVID-19 infection the same as vaccination.
CRITICAL RACE THEORY
A number of Republican lawmakers filed legislation aimed at stopping critical race theory, a framework for examining the effects race and racism have on institutions, from being taught in K-12 schools. Republican opposition to critical race theory generally centers on concerns that white students are being taught to feel ashamed or guilty in the context of learning about the nation's history of racism and slavery. One Missouri proposal would ban questions on state tests promoting the idea that “the advent of slavery in the territory that is now the United States constituted the true founding of the United States.” The legislation alludes to the much-scrutinized 1619 Project, a groundbreaking collection of essays on race that first appeared in a special issue of The New York Times Magazine in 2019.
Associated Press writer David A. Lieb contributed to this report.