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Session ends with major accomplishments, partisan bitterness

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Dueling visions of the role of the Missouri government have always piloted the decisions of public officials in the legislature, and this year was no different.

In the end, several major pieces of legislation, including some long-sought priorities, were passed. But many more were cut short, casualties of animosity and procedural acrobatics.

There were victories on both sides. A major law enforcement package that prohibits officers from administering chokeholds and creates a “Police Bill of Rights” statewide is headed to the governor for his signature.

And after nearly a decade, lawmakers finally approved a prescription drug monitoring program that would see Missouri join the rest of the country.

The legislature also approved limiting the power of local health officials to implement emergency mandates, a response to what some saw as overreaching by local health officials in enacting closures, distancing rules and other measures during the pandemic.

In addition to the restrictions on local health authorities, towns that receive public funds would not be able to require proof of vaccination for access to transportation systems or any other public accommodations. And they granted certain liability protections to businesses related to the pandemic, although it is not retroactive and won’t take effect until August.

National ambitions by the GOP to tighten voting laws won’t see their day in Missouri — for now. Republican lawmakers called for the legislature to deal with the matter in a future special session.

The battle for Medicaid expansion funding was fatiguing, thwarted by a war among political parties that derailed implementation of the plan. Democrats and other proponents of expansion have questioned the legislative intent behind not funding it, whether Republicans don’t want to spend the money or don’t want to be seen as supporting the spending of the money.

And although the final budget contains around $1 billion more than what Gov. Mike Parson requested at the beginning of the session, the governor made the move to leave expansion unfunded in the last week — likely setting up a court battle over access to health care in the state.

Guns and safety
With President Joe Biden in office and Democrats in control of Congress, conservative state lawmakers pushed for a Second Amendment Preservation Act that would nullify federal firearm regulations. Another package containing “Blair’s Law” — which would make firing celebratory shots within any city limit illegal — withered alongside proposals to allow guns in churches and on public transportation.

Faith-based youth homes in Missouri now will be subject to regulations and transparency requirements, requiring them to notify the state of their location and provide officials with background checks forall their employees. Facilities would be subject to fines and misdemeanor charges for noncompliance.

The legislation also creates a process through which the state can promptly remove and interview a child from a faith-based youth home where there is “reasonable cause” to believe abuse or neglect is taking place. An emergency clause was attached to the bill, and the governor already said he would immediately sign it into law. The urgency came from multiple reports of abuse and neglect in the homes.

Sponsored by Sen. Holly Rehder, R-Sikeston, Senate Bill 63 would establish the Joint Oversight Task Force of Prescription Drug Monitoring, also known as a PDMP, which would collect and maintain a database on controlled substance prescriptions. It’s an attempt to prevent opioid addiction and overdoses by monitoring drug prescriptions. Rehder has tried to pass similar legislation since 2012.

Taxes and energy
Proposals to bring down the income tax for the highest bracket prevailed as part of a compromise to finally pass a statewide online “Wayfair” sales tax.

The Wayfair tax would require out-of-state retailers to pay sales tax on online purchases, putting the onus on sellers rather than purchasers. The bill’s fiscal notes estimate revenues from the tax could range between $80 million and $100 million.

An income tax reduction for the highest bracket passed, coupled with a working families tax credit equal to 10% of the federal credit — doubling whenever general revenues increase by $150 million.

Missourians still won’t be able bet on sports, as efforts to legalize gaming machines and sports gambling stalled again this year. Similarly, proposals to formally outlaw the gaming machines that have popped up in convenience stores around the state also failed to gain traction.

Utility providers, like Ameren, will be able to refinance and shut down coal-fired power plants quicker without taking large financial losses — allowing the state’s utility companies to accelerate their transition to renewable energy.

And with a fuel tax on its way, the price at the pump will increase by 2.5 cents per gallon each year beginning in October, until it reaches a total increase of 12.5 cents by July 2025. The current fuel tax is 17.4 cents, and the tax will go to the Missouri Department of Transportation for improvements to the state’s roads and bridges.

Education
While efforts to expand charter schools never crossed the finish line, calls for education savings accounts did.

Community colleges and four-year institutions will see their tuition caps removed, while the same legislation allows for student-athletes to make money from their likenesses.

After three years of failed proposals, the Missouri legislature passed a bill barring public schools from using restraint or seclusion as a punishment in many cases.

And model legislation championed by conservatives around the country made it into nine separate anti-transgender bills that sought to control transition-related medical care for youths by outright denying it and, in some cases, criminalizing parents if they seek it for their trans child. Other bills require trans kids who want to be athletes to participate in sports according to their gender assigned at birth. However, none of these were turned into law.

‘You have a deal until you don’t’
Lawmaking in the Senate came to an early stop during the last day with hurled claims of leadership being “lied to” and “backstabbed” over a “promised” agreement that the Federal Reimbursement Allowance program would be free from anti-contraceptive language, which isn’t what happened.

Much of the Democrats’ displeasure focused on Senate President Pro Tem Dave Schatz, with whom they said they had dealt in good faith.

“We worked with leadership to help them pass things that they might want in order to get to a place where $4 billion would come into the state for health care for people,” said Sen. John Rizzo, D-Independence, referring to the money that the allowance program would trigger.

Another area where compromise failed was a high-profile effort to protect Missourians who were overpaid unemployment benefits during the pandemic. The governor was reluctant to forgive the debt, but the issue has received bipartisan support among leadership.

Senate leaders said both the Medicaid allowance and the unemployment protection will be resolved during a special session this fall.

The bad feelings are likely to remain.

“It always comes down to ‘what the pro tem wants, the pro tem is going to get,’” Rizzo said. “And then when you give it to him, he’s going to get some more. And you have a deal until you don’t.”

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