Experience has taught us to temper our expectations when it comes to the Missouri Legislature. That reticence was borne out again as the regular session of the 99th General Assembly concluded on Friday.
If politics is the art of what’s possible, legislators demonstrated once again that in Missouri, the horizon is limited.
That was the case even though Republicans held super majorities in both chambers and, for the first time in eight years, controlled the Governor’s Mansion. Ultimately, it didn’t matter on a number of key bills.
Mostly, it was another ho-hum session marred by GOP infighting, a dysfunctional Senate and an ineffective rookie governor who campaigned as an outsider change agent only to wind up looking like just another politician.
As usual, there were plenty of missed opportunities and a lot of wasted time. That explains why the General Assembly managed to pass only 75 bills this session, the fewest since 2000.
The most ridiculous moment of the session occurred May 3 when Sens. Kiki Curls, a Democrat, and Bob Dixon, a Republican, took to the Senate floor to sing a verse of “Kumbaya” in an attempt to end the acrimony and paralysis that gripped the upper chamber.
The cringe-worthy stunt made national news. Maybe that’s one of the reasons why, when asked by reporters what grade he would give the Legislature at a post-session press conference, Gov. Greitens replied “Frankly, sometimes it looked like third grade.”
Yes it did.
The session highlighted what most clear-eyed students of Missouri politics have already figured out: The problem of money distorting politics is growing worse, term limits were a mistake, the session is too long and it’s time to reduce the number of legislators.
To be sure, Republicans can tout some victories. Working off the The Missouri Chamber of Commerce playbook, the GOP was successful in passing a pro-business slate of bills.
The marquee bill was a right-to-work measure that did away with mandatory union dues. The measure sailed through the Legislature and was signed by Gov. Greitens in early February, making Missouri the 28th right-to-work state.
The Legislature also was successful in passing a bill that changes the burden of proof in state workplace discrimination lawsuits to more closely mirror that of the federal legal standard.
Gov. Greitens should sign this bill, which will help curtail frivolous lawsuits that employers have had to contend with for the past 10 years or so when the Missouri Supreme Court inexplicably changed the law. The hype against this bill and some other tort reform measures is overblown.
Lawmakers wisely passed a bill to put the state in compliance with the federal Real ID act, ensuring that Missourians will be able to use their driver’s license to travel or visit federal installations. They also passed a measure that permits ride-hailing services such as Uber to operate across the state.
As in past years, crafting the budget consumed much of the oxygen and created plenty of heartburn during the session. Sluggish revenues, combined with growing costs for Medicaid programs, provoked cuts to hundreds of budget lines in the $27.8 billion spending plan.
Higher education bore the brunt of the cuts. The University of Missouri System’s core funding was cut by 6.5 percent for the coming fiscal year as was funding for East Central College. Schools will be forced to raise tuition to account for the reduced funding. College students and their parents are the losers in this budget.
Lawmakers can take credit for fully funding the state’s K-12 public education formula for the first time in years. But in reality it was only possible because the Legislature reduced the formula target last year. Because of that lower target, lawmakers can hit it with a new commitment of $48 million ---— the smallest new investment since 2013. That’s compared to $85 million in the current budget and $115 million in 2015 as the St. Louis Post-Dispatch pointed out
The biggest disappointment of the session was the failure to pass a comprehensive ethics reform bill. Greitens campaigned hard on the need for ethics reform to clean up corruption in Jefferson City.
The House showed real leadership when it overwhelmingly passed a bill to ban lobbyists’ gifts to elected officials in early January. The measure was sent to the Senate where it never got within striking distance after Greitens and senators sparred over his use of nonprofits to raise anonymous campaign money.
Many thought the former Navy SEAL could be the catalyst to finally deliver on the promise of ethics reform. In the end, he proved impotent as his own ethical challenges held him back. The ethics reform debate became a farce.