Missouri legislative session wraps up: what happened, what didn’t and why it matters

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·7 min read
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

The Missouri General Assembly wrapped its 2021 regular session on Friday with victories on several measures long-sought by lawmakers, but the Republican-controlled legislature also failed to pass some key items.

The final, chaotic day of session ended with lawmakers unable to pass the renewal of a tax on medical providers that brings in billions every year to fund the state’s Medicaid program because the Senate abruptly adjourned several hours early. Gov. Mike Parson will almost certainly call a special session on the tax before it expires in September.

Legislators passed other agenda items, however, including establishing a prescription drug monitoring program. Supporters had been trying for years to create one in Missouri, the last state without it.

Other measures drew bipartisan support, including a criminal justice overhaul that bans police chokeholds and removes a rule that Kansas City police officers live in city limits, as well as a bill that will allow Missouri to collect more tax revenue from online retailers.

But other bills proved deeply divisive, even among Republicans.

A gas tax hike, a medical provider tax renewal and a ban on gender reassignment treatment for minors all resulted in ruptures within GOP ranks.

What happened

School choice: Lawmakers sent a scholarship program funded by tax credits, a priority of Republican leaders in both chambers, to Gov. Mike Parson. But days later they halved the measure’s size as a compromise to gain the votes of Senate Republicans who were on the fence. It is limited to urban areas such as Jackson County and allows private donors to claim tax credits when funding scholarships for low-income public school students to attend private school or home-school.

Gas tax: Missouri’s second-lowest-in-the-nation gas tax would rise by 12.5 cents per gallon over the next five years, an increase long sought by transportation advocates for highway and bridge repairs. The full increase would raise more than $500 million annually for the Missouri Department of Transportation and local governments. It would begin with a 2.5-cent-per-gallon hike in October and comes with an option for Missouri drivers to apply for a refund, backed up with receipts in case of an audit.

Internet sales tax: Sales from online retailers such as Ebay and Etsy would be taxed under this measure Gov. Mike Parson favored. Business groups pushed for it to reduce local competition against out-of-state e-commerce giants. It was one of two bills that Missouri became the last in the nation to pass this year. Also included were income tax cuts for all but the lowest-earning Missourians, and a tax credit program favored by Democrats for low-to moderate-income families.

Prescription drug monitoring: After eight years of wrangling, Missouri will have a statewide program that tracks opioid prescriptions. Doctors and pharmacists would have access to patients’ prescription history to prevent and detect abuse. Missouri is the last state in the nation to adopt such a system. It will replace one operated by St. Louis County that covers more than 80% of the state’s population.

Police reform and police protections: Lawmakers passed a bipartisan package that included an end to the Kansas City Police Department’s residency requirement, to local officials’ chagrin. The bill bans police chokeholds, criminalizes officers’ having sex with detainees and requires police departments to review officers’ history with other agencies before hiring them. It allows prosecutors to ask a judge to toss a conviction in innocence cases. They also passed a “police bill of rights,” giving officers procedural protections during internal misconduct investigations, and penalizes cities for police budget cuts. The final version did not include a controversial section that penalizes protesters for blocking traffic.

Foster and adoptive care tax credits: A top priority of House Speaker Rob Vescovo and several other Republicans who have personal experience with the foster care system, the bills to give foster and adoptive families tax benefits passed with little opposition. They also make it easier to terminate birth parents’ rights in an effort to speed up adoptions in certain cases. Parson has already signed these measures.

Restrictions on local health orders: In response to business shutdowns and capacity restrictions ordered by some city and county health departments during the COVID-19 pandemic, Republicans pushed to subject local health orders to legislative review. Under the bill lawmakers sent to Parson’s desk, local governments could order business restrictions during emergencies for 30 days at most. Extensions would have to be approved by a city or county council, and would need an increasing majority of the councils’ support over time. The council could also vote to end the order. During the pandemic, Parson refused to issue statewide mask mandates or business restrictions, deferring to local control.

Protections for children: With near-unanimous votes, lawmakers passed a bill aimed at stopping abuse and neglect at Missouri’s unregulated Christian boarding schools now heads to Parson. If he signs it, the legislation will immediately go into effect, marking the first time in at least four decades that the state will have some oversight of unlicensed, faith-based facilities. They also passed a bill that would limit the use of seclusion and restraints in schools.

Federal gun law nullification: The General Assembly approved an expansive ban against state and local police officers enforcing federal gun laws and regulations. Critics said parts of the bill aren’t constitutional and could hamper law enforcement agencies. But supporters said they feared potential gun control measures from President Joe Biden’s administration.

COVID lawsuit shields: Lawmakers passed Parson’s priority item, protection from COVID-19-related lawsuits for businesses in their last act of the session. It would protect any business from liability for the spread of COVID-19, or for medical treatment and products sold to combat COVID-19. A plaintiff would have to prove “recklessness or willful misconduct that caused an actual exposure” to the virus, and that the exposure caused personal injury. The protection extends to a broad range of possible legal actions, including workers suing their employers, consumers suing manufacturers and patients suing medical providers.

WHAT DIDN’T HAPPEN

Funding for expanded Medicaid eligibility: The voter-approved plan, passed last August with a 53% majority, isn’t happening anytime soon. House Budget Chair Cody Smith, a Carthage Republican, early on removed Parson’s request for funding for an estimated 275,000 new Medicaid enrollees from the rest of the state budget. From there, Republicans repeatedly voted down the $130 million — which would have come with $1.6 billion in federal funding. Parson has since announced the expansion won’t move forward. In addition, the state Senate failed to renew a routine tax on medical providers that funds a large share of the state’s existing Medicaid payments, throwing the entire program into jeopardy.

Unemployment overpayment forgiveness: Forcing Parson’s administration to waive unemployment benefits it paid in error to roughly 46,000 jobless Missourians during the pandemic got near-unanimous, bipartisan support in the House early in the session. But in the state Senate, Republicans tried to use the bill to pass cuts to the unemployment program, prompting an immediate Democratic filibuster. The bill failed to pass, despite lawmakers putting federal COVID-19 relief aid into the budget for the express purpose of forgiving the payments.

Voter photo ID and other election laws: Republicans attempted resurrection of the voter photo ID law that the Missouri Supreme Court struck down last year. They also worked at making it harder for voters to pass ballot measures. The measures passed the House but never came to a vote in the Senate, with the exception of a bill prohibiting judges from rewriting lawmaker-approved ballot measures. Senate Republicans used that bill to make a last-minute proposal to force U.S. Senate candidates into a primary election runoff, a change that would likely have curbed former Gov. Eric Greitens’ bid to become the 2022 Republican noiminee. That bill did not pass the House.

Restrictions for transgender youth: Republicans in the House pushed two measures that GOP lawmakers pursued in statehouses around the country. One bill, to ban them from playing on school sports teams that match their gender, received preliminary approval on the House floor. But the overall measure was tabled and never revisited after an acrimonious fight over teaching race-related curricula in schools. The other, which would have prohibited minors from getting gender reassignment treatments, was voted down in committee late in the session.

The Star’s Jonathan Shorman, Laura Bauer and Judy Thomas contributed reporting