Senate President Pro Tem Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, speaks after adjournment May 17, 2024. (Photo by Annelise Hanshaw/Missouri Independent)

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by Jason Hancock, Missouri Independent

The least productive — and most chaotic — legislative session in living memory came to a close May 17, when the Missouri Senate, mired in factional infighting, threw in the towel eight hours early and the House scrambled to get whatever bills it could salvage across the finish line before the 6 p.m. deadline for adjournment. 

In the end, only 28 non-budget bills found success this year. That’s fewer than the previous low-water mark in 2020, when only 31 bills passed because the legislative session was upended by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It wasn’t a good session or a bad session,” said Senate Minority Leader John Rizzo, an Independent Democrat. “But it was definitely a bizarre session.”

To be sure, some significant legislation found success.

A massive education bill signed by Gov. Mike Parson expands a tax-credit program for private school tuition and allows charter schools to open for the first time in Boone County. It also pumps millions into raising teacher pay, among other provisions, and is estimated to cost taxpayers $468 million when fully implemented.

A public safety bill cleared the legislature Friday that would make changes to the juvenile court system and allow the Missouri Office of Prosecution Services to establish a conviction review unit to investigate claims of actual innocence of any defendant, including those who plead guilty.

The bill also includes “Blair’s Law,” which would ban celebratory gunfire within the limits of a municipality. The law is named after Blair Shanahan Lane, an 11-year-old Kansas City girl killed during Fourth of July celebrations in 2011 by a stray bullet shot into the sky.

After years of unsuccessful efforts to make Planned Parenthood ineligible to receive reimbursements from the state’s Medicaid program, the governor signed the bill into law earlier this month.

“For me, the good far outweighs the bad,” said Senate President Pro Tem Caleb Rowden, a Columbia Republican, “and I’m walking out of here with my head held high.”

Senate Minority Leader John Rizzo, D-Independence, tells reporters that no one “won” during the 2024 legislative session following adjournment May 17, 2024. (Photo by Annelise Hanshaw/Missouri Independent)

But the legacy of the 2024 legislative session will be the long list of bills that died — and the open GOP warfare that killed many of them.

Time ran out on a lot of bills with wide support from both parties, including an expansion of child care tax credits that was a big priority of the governor. The legislature also failed to ban child marriage or end Missouri’s practice of taking millions of dollars in Social Security benefits owed to foster kids.

A wide-ranging women’s health bill — which includes provisions allowing women on private insurance to pick up an annual supply of contraceptives rather than going to the pharmacy every few months — was also a victim of Senate gridlock.

The first day of the session in January saw a resumption of years of GOP infighting, with the Freedom Caucus holding court for more than an hour to vent frustrations with the chamber’s Republican leadership.

That dynamic played out again and again through the session, culminating with a 41-hour filibuster earlier this month by Freedom Caucus members that stalled — but did not block — a bill renewing a tax crucial to funding Missouri’s Medicaid program.

The bad blood between the Freedom Caucus and Republicans loyal to Senate leadership boiled over in the session’s final days. Despite holding 24 of 34 seats in the Senate, Republicans could not muster 18 votes to kill a Democratic filibuster of legislation making it harder to amend the Missouri Constitution through the initiative petition process.

Thanks to the impasse, the initiative petition bill — a top GOP priority, seen as a method to undercut a likely November ballot measure enshrining abortion rights in the Constitution — died on the session’s final day.

Sen. Rick Brattin, R-Harrisonville, listens to reporters' questions following adjournment of the 2024 legislative session May 17, 2024. (Photo by Annelise Hanshaw/Missouri Independent)

“It is a uniparty,” said Sen. Rick Brattin, a Harrisonville Republican and Freedom Caucus member. “That’s what people are fed up and frustrated with, Republicans giving in and caving in. Accepting defeat in the hands of victory, that seems to be the mantra of the Republican Party and brand.”

Rowden said a lot of good work got done this year despite efforts by the Freedom Caucus.

“I make decisions not based on what people are gonna say about those decisions on Twitter,” he said, “but about what is in the best interest of the state and what’s in the best interest of this institution.”

As the House stripped amendments off of Senate bills in order to send them to the governor, Republicans complained about the gridlock that upended the Senate.

Every legislative session is unusual, said House Speaker Dean Plocher, but “this has been a less productive year on the other side of the building.”

State Sen. Bill Eigel, a Weldon Spring Republican, had no remorse about his role in killing a large swath of bills. Out of every 100 bills filed every year, Eigel said, “probably 90 of them need not pass.”

“So a lot of the bad things that didn’t happen this session didn’t happen because of the folks you see standing behind me,” he told reporters at the Freedom Caucus press conference, adding: “How many tax increases and fee increases didn’t happen because some folks were willing to get more aggressive with the folks that are giving up on their principles?”

The biggest impact of the GOP infighting was likely how much it delayed the state budget process, ultimately resulting in a spending plan most everyone concedes will require lawmakers to return later this year to ensure state agencies don’t run out of money. 

Lawmakers cut hundreds of millions of dollars requested by Parson for the three major public welfare agencies, the departments of Social Services, Mental Health and Health and Senior Services. And Charlie Shields, president of the State Board of Education and a former Senate president pro tem, this week said he expects “the mother of all supplemental budgets, probably in a special session.”

“We’ll be back when the department’s run out of money,” Rizzo said, “because they will.”

Eigel seemed to predict the drama could resume if the legislature returns to allocate more money.

“We spent billions of dollars in earmarks and the budget that we did just pass. Billions,” he said. “If there was such a need for the basic services of these departments to be funded, maybe we should have cut out some of the fat.”

Three of the five Freedom Caucus members are leaving the Senate after this year due to term limits, and August primaries in those and a handful of other districts will ultimately decide whether the dynamic in the chamber changes.

Rowden, who is also leaving office this year, said he hopes the departures “provides an opportunity for this chamber to kind of recalibrate.”

In the end, the Senate returned for the final day of the legislative session Friday for only 10 minutes before adjourning for the year. 

Senate Majority Leader Cindy O'Laughlin, R-Shelbina, hugs Sen. Bill Eigel, R-Weldon Spring, after the end of a contentious legislative session May 17, 2024. She told reporters she did not always agree with Eigel, but she “loved him.” (Photo by Annelise Hanshaw/Missouri Independent)

For all intents and purposes, the Senate was done the day before, Senate Majority Leader Cindy O’Laughlin conceded to reporters. But she didn’t want to end on a sour note — with lawmakers taking verbal shots at each other on the chamber’s floor.

“I like all of my colleagues,” she said. “They are all very bright, though difficult to handle sometimes.”

And when the Senate adjourned Friday, “everyone hugged each,” O’Laughlin said. “Bill (Eigel) and I hugged each other.”

Eigel, listening in from the back of the room as O’Laughlin spoke to reporters, shouted out, “Love you, Cindy.”

She didn’t miss a beat.

“Love you, Bill.”

The Independent’s Rudi Keller contributed to this story.

Missouri Independent

Missouri Independent is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Missouri Independent maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Jason Hancock for questions: More by Missouri Independent