Tensions were running high in the Missouri House Tuesday night as lawmakers debated a plan to raise the state’s gas tax, among the lowest in the nation.
The proposal had divided Republicans, with some aghast the GOP-dominated General Assembly would advance a tax increase and others adamant it had to be done after more than two decades without a hike, to shore up crumbling roads.
“You’re a f------ coward,” Rep. Dottie Bailey, a Eureka Republican who opposed the bill, exclaimed as House Majority Leader Dean Plocher, a supportive St. Louis Republican, moved to cut off debate.
Republicans retained their grip on the legislature in November, maintaining firm supermajorities in both the House and Senate and holding on to the governor’s office. Lawmakers arrived in Jefferson City in January with ambitious agendas on everything from gun rights to elections.
But the past four months have demonstrated the limits of Republican power. While several key priorities passed the legislature, others fell victim to party infighting.
The divisions that at times hobbled Republicans came in various configurations: conservative vs. moderate, leadership vs. rank-and-file, House vs. Senate. Collectively, they worked to gum up Missouri’s legislative machine as Republicans failed to advance several high-profile issues.
Voter ID measures, forgiving erroneously paid unemployment benefits and a must-pass hospital tax were all derailed. And lawmakers rejected Gov. Mike Parson’s request to fund Medicaid expansion, all but assuring the GOP chief executive will face a lawsuit.
“We’re a Republican supermajority. Why don’t we act like it?” Rep. Cheri Toalson Reisch, a Hallsville Republican, said during the gas tax debate.
Nothing illustrated the strife more vividly than the fight to renew a tax on medical providers to provide billions in funding for Missouri’s Medicaid program.
The Senate’s Conservative Caucus upended the routine bill in March by inserting a provision to ban Medicaid coverage of certain birth control methods. It would not relent as other Republicans tried to push compromise language or other avenues to renew the tax.
The proposed ban on certain implanted or emergency contraceptives could run afoul of federal coverage regulations, placing billions in Medicaid funding at risk. Democrats and a few Republicans were opposed.
Overnight Thursday, less than 24 hours before the session ended, Sen. Paul Wieland, an Imperial Republican and proponent of the ban, lashed out when Senate leaders called for a version of the tax renewal that did not include his anti-abortion language.
“This is the lowest-hanging fruit we could find and we’re having so much difficulty from our own ranks,” Wieland said. “I’m at wit’s end.”
He proposed sending the bill to a conference committee with the House to fight for the ban, blocking the passage of the tax renewal. Senate President Pro Tem Dave Schatz, a Sullivan Republican, cast a vote in Wieland’s favor while four Republicans joined the 10 Democrats to oppose it.
The next morning, Senate Minority Leader John Rizzo, an Independence Democrat, excoriated Schatz for going back on his word in an apparent agreement with Democrats and even some Republicans to get the tax renewed without the abortion-related language.
“That will happen to somebody else in here in the majority party again,” Rizzo predicted.
With no opposition, Rizzo moved for the Senate to adjourn four hours early.
As the session wrapped Friday, Republican leaders acknowledged the divisions within their caucus, but sought to focus on their legislative accomplishments, rather than what was left on the table.
“Not every one of our caucus agrees with everything we got done, including myself. There were some things that passed that even I didn’t vote for,” Vescovo said.
Lawmakers did not pass any stricter voting laws, which enjoy widespread support among Republicans. The bills were part of a broader effort by Republicans in statehouses across the country to limit ballot access.
Days before the end of the session, Rep. Dan Shaul, an Imperial Republican and chair of the House Elections and Elected Officials Committee, wrote to Parson asking for a special session on those bills. He blamed the Senate for holding up several elections-related measures the House passed, including the resurrection of Missouri’s voter photo ID law and higher thresholds for the passage of citizen-initiated ballot measures.
Republicans advanced some key priorities, including passage at the last-minute of a ban on enforcing a range of federal gun laws and a shield from COVID-related lawsuits for businesses. Lawmakers also approved increasing the state’s gas tax, currently among the lowest in the nation, despite the caustic fight within the party.
Other measures barely passed.
Republican supporters of a tax-credit funded school choice program, including House Speaker Rob Vescovo, had to exempt the districts of many rural GOP representatives from the program in order to garner the minimum number of votes to pass the controversial measure. Then, the bill sponsor, Rep. Phil Christofanelli of St. Peters, moved to cut in half the amount of tax credits available, a concession he made to get support from more Republican senators.
Even bipartisan bills at times were nearly thwarted by Republican clashes.
A criminal justice overhaul that repealed a requirement that Kansas City police live in the city and banned chokeholds passed with overwhelming majorities in both the House and Senate. But the legislation nearly came undone after a group of Republicans briefly included a provision strengthening the General Assembly’s powers to enforce witness subpoenas.
Parson called the proposal a power grab and threatened to veto any bill with it. That had some Republicans initially angling for a showdown.
“Part of me said, ‘Great, let’s put it on his desk and let’s see what he wants to do about it,’” Sen. Bob Onder, a Lake St. Louis Republican, said.
Onder and other GOP lawmakers angling for the subpoena provisions eventually backed down.
But when Republicans weren’t able to overcome their differences, they sometimes relied Democratic votes to get bills passed.
“I think the Republican majority is probably in different factions right now and I think that probably moving forward the best bet is to find whatever faction in the Senate that wants to work together and work with them, whether that’s leadership or not,” Rizzo said.
Rep. Justin Hill, a Lake St. Louis Republican and one of the House’s most conservative lawmakers, lamented that Republicans had relied on Democrats to help pass the gas tax hike. He also expressed frustration that Democratic votes aided the passage of a bill to establish a prescription drug monitoring program (Missouri is the last state without one).
He called the situation “embarrassing” and suggested Republican lawmakers will pay in future elections.
“This is how you lose a supermajority,” Hill said.